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The Globe and Mail

Aid, pirates and patrols are all part of life for Canadian navy

While conducting World Food Program escort duties on April 18, 2009, HMCS Winnipeg responded to a pirate attack against MV Front Ardenne off the coast of Somalia.

Corporal Rick Ayer

A pirate skiff that had attacked vessels carrying much-needed food shipments off the Horn of Africa was pulling away from a British tanker in hot pursuit. Enter HMCS Winnipeg, which jumped into the chase with the Brits.

"We had to fire warning shots from our helicopter as well as from our ship," recalled Lieutenant Jason.Gallant, 40. "I don't think Canadian warships had fired any shots in any sort of capacity or to try to stop anyone. Firing those warning shots at night to try to get a vessel of suspected pirates to stop - that stands out."

For Lt. Gallant, those moments were the most memorable of a two-month tour in the Persian Gulf on HMCS Winnipeg, which had joined a NATO group last year escorting merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden.

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It has been decades since the navy has had to confront a direct threat to Canadian sovereignty. The navy's primary job is to track maritime traffic within 1,000 miles of Canada's shores, correlating the intelligence with information from its security partners, identifying intruders before they arrive in Canada's territorial waters and if necessary, intercepting them.

Otherwise, the warships spend much of their time on international and domestic exercises or working with others. At home, that means assisting the RCMP, the border service agency, customs, the Coast Guard and government departments responsible for the fisheries, forests, parks and the environment. They are involved in search-and-rescue operations, gathering evidence of illegal driftnet fishing or identifying polluting vessels.

Earlier this month, HMCS Winnipeg was completing a two-week maritime security patrol along the West Coast, taking the ship and its crew of 225 the length of the B.C. coast, from Washington State to Dixon Entrance at the B.C.-Alaska border.

The ship went to wave the flag in some inlets that had not seen a navy boat in two or three years. Tasked to collect information about such things as fish farms and new logging patches or logging roads, the crew will pass on photos using Google Earth maps. If something significant pops up, others come out to investigate.

Even in hostile waters, they are ready to put their arms aside for other tasks.

Master Seaman Eileen Boutilier, 28, was also aboard HMCS Winnipeg in the Persian Gulf.

She recalled that the vessel encountered a boat of refugees heading to Yemen that had been at sea for three days, with no water and not much food. The boat was so low in the water, the Winnipeg crew could not tell how many people were aboard. They estimated 20, but "little heads kept popping up" and in the end there were 50, MS. Boutilier says.

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Crew from HMCS Winnipeg brought water and a bunch of apples and oranges. "We pointed them in the right direction and let them go on their way," she says. They were not allowed to provide any further help. "They had a GPS and were heading in the right direction. We just gave them a bit of guidance and sent them on their way."

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