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Most of Canada’s current icebreakers – including the plucky little Amundsen – won’t last as long as our new $50 bills. (Bank of Canada)
Most of Canada’s current icebreakers – including the plucky little Amundsen – won’t last as long as our new $50 bills. (Bank of Canada)

MICHAEL BYERS

You can't replace real icebreakers Add to ...

A rugged little ship adorns the back of the new $50 bill that the Bank of Canada began circulating Monday. But, in an ironic twist of fate, the red and white CCGS Amundsen no longer sails the Arctic seas.

The 98-metre icebreaker was built in 1979 and originally named the CCGS Sir John Franklin. With 18,000 horsepower and a thick double hull, she could push steadily through one metre-thick sea ice and ram her way through much thicker ice ridges.

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In 2003, the ship was retrofitted for scientific research with high-tech laboratories, a dynamic positioning system, a multi-beam sonar for seabed mapping and a moon pool for accessing the ocean through the bottom of the hull.

In recognition that science is international, she was renamed after the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who, in 1906, became the first explorer to sail through the Northwest Passage.

Today, however, the Amundsen is tied to a wharf in Trois-Rivières, with cracks in four of her six engines – cracks symptomatic of decades of underfunding for Canada’s Coast Guard icebreaker fleet.

Breaking ice is hard on ships, not least because ramming through ridges requires that engines move rapidly between forward and reverse. For this reason, icebreakers are usually expected to last only 30 years.

The youngest ship in Canada’s icebreaking fleet is the 25-year-old Henry Larsen. Next in line is the 29-year-old Terry Fox. The Amundsen’s two sister ships, the Des Groseilliers and Pierre Radisson, are 30 and 34 years old, respectively.

The fleet’s flagship, the Louis S. St-Laurent, is 43. Last summer, she had to be escorted out of the Arctic Ocean by a U.S. icebreaker after her main propeller broke.

Yet, these aging ships provide a range of essential services, from breaking paths for commercial vessels to maintaining navigation aids, resupplying meteorological stations and supporting scientific research. They also serve as highly mobile platforms for other government agencies such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the RCMP.

In 2005, then-opposition leader Stephen Harper promised to build three new heavy icebreakers. Two years later, as Prime Minister, he changed his mind and announced that six to eight ice-strengthened Arctic offshore patrol ships would be constructed, instead, and assigned to the navy rather than the Coast Guard.

The decision was based on concerns – widespread at the time – that Canadian Arctic sovereignty was under threat from other countries. Russian scientists had just planted a titanium flag on the seabed at the North Pole, and the media were playing up the risk of a new Cold War.

Now, however, the Arctic countries are co-operating closely. Last year, Russia and Norway resolved the largest remaining Arctic sovereignty dispute with a boundary treaty in the Barents Sea.

Russia has led the negotiation of an Arctic-wide search-and-rescue treaty, promoted the use of the Northern Sea Route along its coast by foreign cargo vessels, and reaffirmed that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is the appropriate mechanism for determining the extent of seabed rights in the Central Arctic Ocean.

Mr. Harper took note of these changes. In January of 2010, according to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, he told NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that “Canada has a good working relationship with Russia” and “there is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war.”

The navy has responded to the reduced threat level by scaling back the planned size and speed of the Arctic offshore patrol ships. The vessels will now be capable of just 17 knots, compared with the 29 knots of Canada’s two-decade-old frigates. Their capabilities will also be limited by the decision to build them as ice-strengthened rather than icebreaking vessels. Indeed, the hulls won’t be strong enough to allow Arctic operations between November and July.

Part-time “slushbreakers” will never be able to replace purpose-built icebreakers. In an increasingly busy Arctic, Canada needs ships that can go anywhere, any time, and fulfill all of the federal government’s responsibilities in the region.

For five years, the government has talked about replacing the Louis S. St. Laurent with a new heavy icebreaker named the Diefenbaker, but, so far, no contract has been signed. And because the Arctic sea ice is thinning and receding, the Diefenbaker, as currently planned, will be more powerful and expensive than necessary. Two or three medium icebreakers could be built for the same cost, and provide more coverage and flexibility.

Fortunately, as Liberal Senator Colin Kenny has pointed out, we still have time to get things right. Plans for the Arctic offshore patrol ships and the Diefenbaker should be set aside, and mid-sized multi-purpose Coast Guard icebreakers built instead.

Most of Canada’s current icebreakers – including the plucky little Amundsen – won’t last as long as our new $50 bills.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is a project leader with ArcticNet, the federally funded consortium of scientists that relies on the CCGS Amundsen.

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