Politics·Exclusive

Coast guard fleet deteriorated under Tories and Liberals, report says

An independent report prepared for the Liberal government says the coast guard fleet is so old that it has almost fully depreciated. The scathing assessment is the latest warning about the state of the service.

Canadians don't grasp the dire straits the coast guard is in, expert says

The Canadian Coast guard's medium icebreaker Henry Larsen is seen in Allen Bay during Operation Nanook, in Nunavut on Aug. 25, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The majority of the Canadian Coast Guard fleet is so old that its book value is almost worthless, says an independent report presented to the Liberal government.

A third-party analysis was commissioned by the agency, which has for the last 20 years fallen under the responsibility of the Fisheries Department.

A heavily censored copy of the report, which was included in a briefing package for former fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo, was obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

'The coast guard has always been ignored within the federal family.' - Rob Huebert , Arctic expert, University of Calgary.

It pulls no punches when it comes to the state of the fleet that performs vital ice-breaking and life-saving search and rescue functions on all three coasts.

"A significant amount of the fleet is fully depreciated," says the undated report written by analysts Bill Austin and Carl Hegge.

At least one expert says he doesn't believe the public has grasped the dire state of the service and how — in some cases — it's worse off than the navy, whose aging warships have gotten more attention.

"The coast guard has always been ignored within the federal family," said Rob Huebert, an expert on Arctic and offshore issues at the University of Calgary. "It performs an absolutely essential function, but I'm convinced most Canadians aren't even aware of the coast guard, let alone know what it does."

Rising maintenance bills

The average age of vessels in the fleet is 34 years old.

Under normal circumstances, the situation might not be as bad had successive federal governments — going back 20 years to Jean Chrétien's deficit-slashing Liberals — invested in upkeep of the ships.

The coast guard "has been faced with an insufficient budget for a very long time," the report says, although the problems became particularly acute under the former Conservative government.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent helps clear a path for the ferry MV Highlanders after it became stuck in ice off Cape Breton in March 2015. (Jerome Ronald Penney)

"Maintenance and repair budgets were allocated less than needed to meet full life-cycle requirements over the past decade. By making the decision to reduce maintenance, trying to extend the life of the asset is more difficult and repair costs are increased."

The report says "billions of dollars have been and would be required to reinvest" in all of the coast guard's assets, including ships, helicopters, communication towers and navigational aids.

An aging fleet is not a uniquely Canadian issue – the United States Coast Guard (for one) is facing the same issues, as do many asset-heavy organizations.- Canadian Coast Guard statement

Some of the blame for the sorry state of the agency can be heaped on the coast guard itself, the report suggests.

It has not been aggressive enough in making its case for better funding and has held on to "inefficient programming influenced by socio-economic pressure."

In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks with then chief of defence staff Walt Natynczyk (centre) while standing on an iceberg in Allen Bay in Resolute, Nunavut, on Aug. 25, 2010. In the background is the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Henry Larsen.

The censored version of the report does not define which programs were suspect, and the coast guard, when asked, did not spell out what reviewers considered inefficient.

Instead, in an email the agency pointed to a recent decision by the federal government to spend $45.9 million over two years to improve the dependability and efficiency of navigational aids. How that system might have been inefficient or influenced by socio-economic pressures remains unclear.

CBC News asked for an interview with coast guard commissioner Jody Thomas last week, but an agency official repeatedly insisted on having "more specifics about what you want to speak to her about in advance of an interview."

Other countries in the same boat

The coast guard defended itself on the book value of the fleet, admitting it has been underfunded, but said the Liberal government has recognized the fact and is committed to more incremental funding, pending various review exercises.

It also insisted its ships are safe, but spend longer times out of service as crews try to keep them running.  

"An aging fleet is not a uniquely Canadian issue — the United States Coast Guard (for one) is facing the same issues, as do many asset heavy organizations," the agency said in an email.

Huebert said that just because the book value is gone, it doesn't mean the coast guard vessels are worthless to the country.

But he said the time is rapidly approaching when Canada's coast guard might not be able to respond to individual life-threatening search and rescue cases — or an environmental emergency.

Rob Huebert, associate director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says the coast guard needs more money for 'completely essential tasks.' (CBC)

"The coast guard needs more money and more long-term money to come anywhere near close to doing what we require it to do," he said. "This isn't something that would be just nice to have. These are completely essential tasks. We just don't seem to get our act together to provide the necessary funds."

2nd warning about fleet

The report marks the second time in several months that the Liberals have been warned about the state of the coast guard.

Shortly after the election, a statutory review of transportation infrastructure, headed by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson, painted a grim portrait.

The report hit many of the same notes and suggested that the agency was being taken for granted.  

"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 Emerson report says.

There are new ships on order under the National Shipbuilding Strategy, but they have been painfully slow in coming after the program was put in motion almost six years ago.

Vancouver-based Seaspan Shipyards is building 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 has been under construction, but the major project to build a heavy icebreaker is not expected to get underway until the 2021.

Quebec-based Davie Shipyards last spring pitched a roughly $1.7-billion unsolicited proposal to build — or re-purpose — a fleet of icebreakers and support ships for the coast guard.

The Liberals publicly rejected the plan, but officials privately told federal ministers that leasing ships could be an option.