Politics

Liberals promise new funds for cash-strapped coast guard, fisheries department

The Trudeau government has promised an infusion of much-needed cash for the Canadian Coast Guard and federal Fisheries Department, which documents show have suffered from years of chronic underfunding.

'Operating aging vessels is challenging, as older ships break down more frequently and cost more to repair'

The Liberal government's fiscal update has earmarked $1.2 billion over six years for the Canadian Coast Guard and the federal Fisheries Department. The funding will be used, in part, to maintain the Coast Guard's aging ships. (Shipspotting Canada CCG/Facebook)

The Trudeau government has promised an infusion of much-needed cash for the Canadian Coast Guard and federal Fisheries Department, which documents show have suffered from years of chronic underfunding.

The question is whether the new funding will be enough.

The new money was included in the federal fiscal update, which the Liberals released to much fanfare on Tuesday, and works out to more than $1.2 billion over the next six years.

The government says the funds will be used in a variety of ways, including maintenance to keep the Coast Guard's aging ships, navigational aids and communications equipment in working order.

Money will also be used to train new staff, monitor fish stocks, upgrade radio and information networks and for icebreaking services.

The new funds will no doubt be welcomed by coast guard and fisheries officials, who warned Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc when he took over the portfolio last year that they were struggling to make ends meet.

But University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert, who has worked closely with the coast guard, said the promised new cash represents a fraction of what is really needed.

"Good on them for helping on the operational side," he said. "But $200 million per year? Come on."

Demands exceeding Coast Guard budget

Briefing notes prepared for Leblanc and obtained by The Canadian Press show the toll has been particularly heavy on the coast guard, whose job is to protect Canada's waterways and keep them safe and open to trade.

The agency relies on a fleet of 116 ships and 22 helicopters as well as 17,000 navigational aids and a network of 300 radio towers across Canada to accomplish this task.

But the briefing notes say that the demands placed on the coast guard had exceeded its $1.1-billion budget, which had forced officials to start making trade offs.

"For several years," officials wrote, "CCG has been attempting to protect these services from reductions by reallocating funds from maintenance."

The decision to divert money away from maintenance isn't insignificant given the age of the coast guard's fleet, with many of its ships more than 30 years old and some approaching 50.

"Operating aging vessels is challenging, as older ships break down more frequently and cost more to repair," Leblanc was told. "In 2013-14, 1,595 operational days were lost due to breakdowns."

Financial challenges

The government is working to replace some of those ships as part of its national shipbuilding strategy, starting with the delivery of a new offshore fisheries science vessel early next year.

But the entire strategy has been marred by delays and cost overruns, which has forced the government to look for stop-gaps such as refitting extremely old ships or, when that won't work, leasing privately owned vessels.

In the meantime, government officials have said they are reviewing both the construction schedules and budgets of the new vessels.

The coast guard's overall financial situation was considered so severe last year that the government quietly ordered a review of its real financial risks and requirements, though it's unclear where that review sits.

Officials at Fisheries and Oceans Canada also flagged several money challenges within their department, starting with a lack of funds for fixing and maintaining hundreds of small-craft harbours across the country.

There were also concerns with science and research infrastructure, which officials said was "aging, expensive and risks falling below international standards."

Huebert said the main problem is that official Ottawa doesn't consider Canada to be a maritime nation, and that the importance of the coast guard and Fisheries Department are too often out of sight — and out of mind.

now