That Polar Ice-breaker
T.C. Pullen


"Today, the Arctic is rapidly becoming a focus for defense and development issues that touch on the core interests of each of the superpowers. . . the world is entering the age of the Arctic, an era in which those concerned with international peace and security will urgently need to know mach more about the region and in which policy makers in the arctic rim states will become increasingly concerned. "
Oran R. Young1

 Once again, Canada finds being sandwiched between the two superpowers a cause for concern as she contrives to adapt to this new "era". There is no doubt that the tempo of submarine hide-and-seek in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent waters, including the Canadian arctic islands, is growing. Soviet missile-carrying Typhoon-class submarines (SSBNs) are designed specifically for operation in ice-covered waters, and long-range air and submarine-launched cruise missiles represent a growing polar threat. In partial response, we have proposed the installation of a new North Warning System and the deployment of CF-18 fighters in the Far North. So it goes. A11 this and more reflects the fact that the north polar region is quickly becoming the focus for a wide range of military activities. For Canada, all this superpower jostling is a legitimate source of concern because of the threat posed to her claims in the region-particularly the waters.

Yet Canada also finds herself facing a paradox of northern policy development. How should national policy be derived-in response to domestic considerations, such as the economic health of the country, or in response to international pressures, such as the increasing use of the Arctic for military purposes? If the former, then Canada could be some way from creating sovereignty vehicles such as a $750 million polar ice-breaker. (The government's stated national economic goals would seem to preclude expenditures of the order required to build an Arctic Class 8 ship.2) If the latter, Canada could find herself operating a vessel for which there is no supporting economic argument. Which has priority, and how is the duty to decide enforced? We surely have gone the distance in the development and substantiation of technical arguments-what is needed now is decision.

In August 1985, Canada's aging but redoubtable Coast Guard ice-breaker John A. Macdonald rendezvoused with the new American ice-breaker Polar Sea where Lancaster Sound joins Baffin Bay-gateway to the Northwest Passage. Together, the two ships sailed westward until reaching Viscount Melville Sound some days later. With the ice becoming progressively more difficult, they parted company-the Canadian to retreat, the American to press on in her determination to complete the Passage. Although the Polar Sea's subsequent encounter with heavy pack-ice further west, where Viscount Melville Sound meets M'Clure Strait, proved to be rather more of a challenge than her crew had been expecting (arctic sea-ice being harder and thicker than the antarctic variety with which the Polar Sea was familiar), she eventually succeeded in breaking through into the open waters of Prince of Wales Strait and beyond.


As for the John A. Macdonald, it is unclear whether she withdrew because the ice ahead was more than she could handle or because she had other equally important tasks to perform elsewhere. Perhaps it was to economize on fuel; perhaps it was because there was little to be gained by continuing-the public does not know. Whatever the reason, this incident, albeit not particularly significant, seems somehow to symbolize our inability-some might say reluctance-"to exercise Canada's full sovereignty in and over the waters of the Arctic archipelago".3 Surely, it would have been preferable had the accompanying Canadian ice-breaker led the Polar Sea westward through the heavy pack-ice, which we claim as our own, and into open water before turning back.

 The 26-year-old John A. Macdonald displaces 9,000 tonnes with output of 15,000 shaft horsepower-likely less now on account of her age. By comparison, the newer Polar Sea displaces 12,000 tonnes and can churn up an awesome 75,000 shaft horsepower. Weight and power are the keys to success in ice-breaking; that's why other polar nations build larger, more powerful ships. It may come as news to Canadians to learn that the Polar Sea can generate more horsepower than the combined output of Canada's Louis S. St. Laurent, John A. Macdonald, Pierre Radisson, Groseilliers, and Sir John Franklin-the backbone of our ice-breaker fleet. In the frozen seas of the North, nuclear submarines and icebreakers are the "movers and shakers". Canada lacks the former and, anyway, cannot afford them. The latter have key roles to play in peace and war, but, at present, for want of a truly "polar" vessel, we are outclassed by the United States and Soviet Union.


Few Votes in the Arctic

 Following hard on the heels of the two successful polar voyages of the giant U.S. ice-breaking tanker Manhattan in 1969 and 1970, the Trudeau government declared that, for reasons of arctic sovereignty, it was proceeding with plans for a polar ice-breaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. That was 15 years ago, and the keel has yet to be laid. So much for that promise.

In 1985, following the voyage of the Polar Sea, Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark, in a stirring statement on arctic sovereignty in the House of Commons, announced six measures, including construction of a polar ice-breaker, to preserve "Canada's sovereignty over land, sea, and ice".4 Five of these measures were to receive "immediate" attention. The sixth measure, construction of an icebreaker, was not favoured with the same adjective. However, Mr Clark indicated that these six measures were ones "we can take immediately".5 Whether the government will take action on the ice-breaker project remains to be seen.

So far, the evidence would suggest that stirring statements in the House have come to naught. A year after Mr Clark's encouraging assurances, there is no inkling of progress in the matter of this will-o'-the-wisp ship. The practical realities of implementation seem to have overtaken the decision-a cynic would say that the vision of the ship is fading fast in the murk of Cabinet decision making. There are precious few votes in the Arctic.

 A funding decision the magnitude of that required for the proposed icebreaker means that other equally pressing decisions may be set aside; given the complexity of today's policy agenda and the nearness of the next election, it would seem that the decision is to be postponed for some time to come. It is one thing for a secretary of state to make a grand pronunciamento regarding the construction of an icebreaker. It is quite another to arbitrate the funding and building process.

One can only hope that some activity behind the scenes will soon lead to an announcement that steps are indeed being taken to let contracts and permit the early cutting of steel. The Coast Guard has done its job. The preparatory work is complete. It is up to the government. Admittedly, the job will not be cheap. A 50,000-tonne ship, displacing 5,000 tonnes more than an Iowa-class battleship of the U.S. Navy, would be the largest, most powerful icebreaker in the world and, for a number of excellent reasons, worthy of the name Canada.

 Let us hope, as well, that those who are struggling to produce the long overdue white paper on defence are taking into account the new strategic importance of the Arctic Ocean and the role of the Coast Guard, Canada's unarmed, civilian navy. The fact remains that Canada, a nation whose coastline is held in the grip of winter for much of the year, has a regular navy unfit to operate in ice and virtually isolated from the only fleet possessing that capability.

 Some day, somewhere in the far reaches of the Arctic, an emergency will arise that will call for a swift and effective response. If such a situation involves the United States in arctic waters we claim as our own, and if Canada is unable to cope with it, for whatever reason, Canadian arctic sovereignty will be revealed to all for what it is-spurious.


Captain T.C. Pullen is a marine transportation consultant in Ottawa.



1 Oran R Young, "The age of the Arctic", Foreign Policy, Winter 1985-86.


2 The various classes denote the number of feet of hard ice a ship is capable of breaking while maintaining continuous headway.

3. Notes for a statement in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State for External Affairs the Right Honourable Joe Clark, P.C., M.P., on Canadian Sovereignty, 10 September 1986, p.4.

4. Ibid, p. 3

5. Ibid, p. 6. (Emphasis added.)

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