Report raises alarm over Canada's aging coast guard fleet

A report done for Transport Canada and quietly tabled in the House of Commons paints a grim portrait of the country's coast guard fleet, saying it is understaffed, desperately in need of new ships and without political support.

Review for Transport Canada calls for urgent renewal of ships that are among oldest in the world

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Ann Harvey seen taking on water off the coast of Burgeo. (The Canadian Coast Guard)

A report done for Transport Canada and quietly tabled in the House of Commons paints a grim portrait of the country's coast guard fleet, saying it is understaffed, desperately in need of new ships and without political support.

The comprehensive analysis of the nation's transportation network was part of a statutory review submitted to the Trudeau government last December, but not tabled until the end of the February.

Among other things, it noted that unplanned maintenance on aging coast guard vessels skyrocketed in 2014.

"Not only is it understaffed, but its fleet is one of the oldest in the world and urgently requires renewal (individual ships average nearly 34 years of age)," said the review of the Canadian Transportation Act, which was led by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson. "Without such renewal, it will have to pull ships from service, further reducing reliability."

The independent report, which was accepted by Transport Minister Marc Garneau, also notes that the hands of coast guard service were tied by the previous Conservative government when it comes to buying new ships.

One ship a year

"Under the national shipbuilding and procurement strategy, which requires the Canadian Coast Guard to purchase ships from Canadian shipyards, it can only replace one ship a year, at most," said the review.

"At that rate, the median age of the fleet will not decrease. Other strategies, such as outsourcing or leasing, are not part of the strategy and thus cannot be deployed to meet short-term requirements."

The report warned that coast guard icebreaking services in Arctic are decreasing, while vessel traffic in the region is increasing. It blames the number of breakdowns on underfunding of maintenance by the Conservatives and a general neglect by politicians in Ottawa.

A review of Canada's coast guard fleet finds a need for urgent renewal. The average age for vessels is 34 years. (CBC)

"Indeed, for such a critical piece of transportation infrastructure, the Canadian Coast Guard is not receiving the political attention, or the administrative and financial resources it requires," the report said.

From a security perspective, the coast guard does not have the authority to enforce international and national laws without RCMP officers present, something the reviewers seemed mystified about.

"This has resulted in an inefficient enforcement regime," said the report.

The coast guard falls under the jurisdiction of the Fisheries Department, where a spokesman said that the review was welcomed.

Reviewing report

"The coast guard understands the critical importance of meeting short and mid-term requirements to meet the needs of Canadians," said Frank Stanek, the department's manager of media relations. "The Government of Canada is reviewing the report and is looking forward to hearing from Canadians on the findings of the review."

Public Services and Procurement Canada was asked to comment, but did not respond Monday night.

Vancouver-based Seaspan Shipyards is planning to build the replacement vessels, and is one of two companies designated as the federal government's go-to shipbuilders. The first in a series of science vessels is already under construction, but the major project to build a heavy icebreaker is not expected to get underway until the 2020-21 time frame.

Last month, Quebec-based Davie Shipyards, which was shut out of the shipbuilding strategy, dropped on the desk of Procurement Minister Judy Foote a roughly $1.7 billion unsolicited proposal to build — or repurpose — a fleet of icebreakers and support ships for the coast guard. The plan was rejected by the Liberal government.

Wake-up call

Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia professor and defence expert, says the Liberals need to go back and re-examine whether the country needs to add another shipyard to the strategy and the Emerson report should serve as a wake-up call.

"The need for ships is not going to wait," he said. "The obvious step to take is to break out of this mindset that we only need two shipyards building ships for the government of Canada."

Byers said the Harper government made the decision to go with only two yards in 2011. At that time, the Davie yard, in Levis, Que., was in receivership, but has since been purchased by foreign owners.

"The government needs to question following the two-shipyard model. They recently reaffirmed that commitment, but I think it was a mistake."