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Yearly Archives: 2013

08

Sep

Arctic 2013 Conference: The Road Back Home Again

Action Canada Fellows, advisors and staff sing a rendition of Stan Rogers'

Action Canada Fellows, advisors and staff sing a rendition of Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage” on the flight deck of the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent on September 6, 2013.

Thursday evening, the Louis anchored in Erebus and Terror Bay. Nestled beside Beechey Island, the bay’s name is a tribute to H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror, the ill-fated ships of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-1840s.

As we dropped anchor, many of us joined Captain Rothwell and the mates on the bridge. Just off the port bow, on the snow-covered beach, the officers pointed to the marked graves of three of Franklin’s men, and the remains of their meagre shelter, enduring testimony to the adventurers’ last best ration—hope—and to the cruel reality of their fate. In the still and fading twilight, the water smooth as glass, we stood in solemn silence and paid our respects.

The air is icy here, even at summer’s end. On the final two days of our voyage, the straits narrowed and we could see the barren, rocky shore. After darkness fell on Wednesday, when we felt the Louis’ hull drive through thick ice for the first time, Action Canada Fellows raced outside, some with their jackets thrown on over their pajamas, to experience the thrill of the ship’s power, as chewed-up chunks of ice trailed in its wake.

Looking at those graves—and realizing that on the hill just above them is Franklin’s famous cairn—it was impossible not to recognize that, notwithstanding the Louis’ awesome capabilities and the warmth and hospitality of her crew, we were very, very far from home, sailing in the shadow of those who once sought the world’s edge and found their end, instead. And now, more than 150 years later, there we were, paying homage to those brave explorers who left behind, in Stan Rogers’ words, “a long-forgotten, lonely cairn of stones.”

The next morning, Friday, we said our goodbyes. The officers and crew of the Louis joined us on the flight deck for a group photo, and Action Canada CEO Cathy Beehan and Captain Marc Rothwell led us in song:

Ah, for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

After a heartfelt farewell, the crew carried on, preparing to weigh anchor and carry on with the final six days of their six-week shift. The ship’s helicopter roared to life, rotors whirling, and began to ferry us, four at a time, to shore.

We disembarked at Resolute Bay, one of Nunavut’s smallest communities, and the second-furthest north. Crunching across the snowy tarmac, we met our hosts: the staff of the federal government’s Polar Continental Shelf Project.

After dinner on Friday, we gathered in the PCSP’s lounge for a briefing on its work. Few federal outposts are more northerly or more remote, and sustaining world-class research in an extreme environment is a daily feat. For more than five decades, PCSP has supported not only Canada’s extensive scientific activities in the High Arctic, but also Canadian Forces training in this harsh environment. That PCSP has continued to make these ventures possible is an enormous and enduring public policy success.

On Saturday morning, some of Resolute Bay’s leaders reminded us of a darker chapter in the history of Canada’s Northern policy. In the 1950s, the federal government relocated Inuit families to this spot, with promises of bountiful wildlife and a better life. They arrived, unprepared, in one of Canada’s harshest climates. Some did not survive. At the hamlet office—where we met with the mayor and elders from the community—their story is literally etched in stone, on a small monument beside the building’s front steps, and in a copy of Ottawa’s official apology, framed inside.

In the small gymnasium, we listened intently as an elder narrated his own story of survival, here on the southern tip of Cornwallis Island. It used to be that instructions would come from Ottawa, he said, imposed on us by faceless white men thousands of miles away. But since the creation of Nunavut, he told us, things have improved; what was once a colonial arrangement has continued to evolve towards true partnership. Distance brings isolation, but the dream of self-reliance remains.

In that spirit, and grateful for this community’s wisdom and its welcome, we set off for the airstrip and the three-hour flight from frozen Resolute Bay to balmy Yellowknife—and the final night of Action Canada’s journey to the Far North. We may be heading southward, but we do so determined to keep this place fixed firmly in our minds. After the week that was, there is no doubt: as long as we keep the remoteness of the Arctic’s geography from becoming the remoteness of our concern, this spectacular place—Canada’s North—will always be, for us, a central feature of the country we call home.

Publié parPosted by Action Canada
Sep 8th, 2013
8 Sep 2013

08

Sep

Working the Louis

Weighing Anchor Aboard the Louis

Weighing Anchor Aboard the Louis

We are enjoying sliced fresh melon and vegetable stir-frys in the middle of the Arctic—creature comforts well beyond what Canada’s early explorers would ever imagine. But there’s a close tally on the fresh fruit and vegetables this week.  A food and parts order was to be loaded aboard the Louis last Sunday in Kugluktuk,  – along with the Action Canada team – but it missed the flight from Yellowknife when the delivery truck broke down en route to the airport.

It’s just one of the logistical challenges that the crew of the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent confront in stride during their annual Arctic voyage.

As Captain Rothwell told us earlier this week, “we can’t just go to Canadian Tire to order spare parts.” Later, he likened the icebreaker to a space ship, noting that the ship has to be self-reliant—not just in supplies but also in fighting fires and coping with any other type of emergency.

Tuesday was the first of our sessions shadowing crewmembers as the icebreaker made its way out of Coronation Bay en route to Resolute via Peel Sound.

Splitting into three groups, Action Canada Fellows trailed the Louis’ crew in the engine room, on the deck, and through the ship’s warren of store rooms. Their guides for the week were, respectively, the Chief Engineer, the Chief Officer, and the Logistics Officer.

From the Chief Engineer, they learned about the ship’s propulsion system; its steering gear, fixed engines and outboards; refrigerators and freezers; and how to manage her fuel.

The Logistics Officer led a tour of the storerooms—the crucial reserves of food, parts and all supplies. Crew need mechanical parts to do their job, and good food is an essential ingredient for creating good morale.

The Fellows who trailed the Chief Officer had the opportunity to learn about navigation aboard the bridge, the flight deck and helicopter operations, and to examine the Louis’ cranes, winches and scientific instruments.

Wednesday, the Fellows were hands-on – learning pre-flight checks for the German-made MBB 105 helicopter, donning gear and preparing to fight fires, and operating the three different cranes on deck. They also learned how to tie knots, plot the ship’s course, keep track of the 23,000-item inventory, and take a hand at baking. A few Fellows proved adept—but, without further training, all will keep their current jobs.

We all welcomed the change of pace from our intensive policy sessions—from Captain Rothwell’s presentations on the Coast Guard, from our own northern experts, Col. (Ret.) Pierre Leblanc and Dr. Natalia Loukacheva, and from our background readings: the Institute on Research in Public Policy’s Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North and the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute’s Canada & The Arctic Council Series.

Thursday evening, in a light-hearted attempt to show what they had learned from the excellent crew of our Coast Guard’s flagship ice-breaker, the Fellows presented skits and power point presentations demonstrating a day in the life of the Louis.

It was a small thank you to recognize the crew’s generosity, good humor and tremendous skill in teaching us the important job they do every day to serve Canadians.

Publié parPosted by Action Canada
Sep 8th, 2013
8 Sep 2013

08

Sep

Thinking of Mackenzie, David Thompson and the Rest

As we cut through Queen Maud Bay, to the south and east of Victoria Island, we were sailing through Canada’s internal waters or, depending on which country you ask, an international strait. On Wednesday morning, one of our resident Northern experts, retired Canadian Forces Colonel Pierre Leblanc, walked us through the evolving geostrategic reality of Canada’s Far North.

Others, most notably the United States, do not share Canada’s position that the straights and narrows of the Northwest Passage are our internal waters. Canada points, in part, to traditional Inuit occupancy of the sea ice as evidence to support our sovereignty claim.

The American view is that this is an international strait, a designation that entails a right of innocent passage, both by sea and through the air corridors above. As Colonel Leblanc told us on Wednesday, our two countries decided in the 1980s that American vessels would notify Canadian authorities before taking the Passage, though the question of its legal status has not been resolved. We have, for the moment, agreed to disagree.

“Sovereignty means demonstrating ownership,” Captain Rothwell told us later in the day on Wednesday. “It means charting, mapping, having a presence, and being ready to respond.” These tasks are the heart of the Coast Guard’s mandate in the Arctic—carrying on the legacy of Canada’s early expeditions to the then-uncharted North, one of whose centenaries we are celebrating this year.

Looking out across Larsen Sound as we sailed towards Peel Sound on Wednesday evening, it is easy to feel alone up here. We never truly are. As technological advances enable additional resource development within the jurisdiction of Arctic states—the subject of polar law expert Dr. Natalia Loukacheva’s presentations this week—sharing the circumpolar benefits and burdens of Arctic economic development will be a diplomatic challenge.

All of which spells a greater role for the Arctic Council, the region’s central diplomatic forum. Established in 1996, the Council provides a locus for international cooperation on environmental protection and sustainable development. Since 2011, the Council has facilitated two legally binding agreements: one on air and maritime search-and-rescue in the Arctic, the other on oil spill pollution, preparedness and response.

Canada assumed the Chair of the Arctic Council for a two-year term in May. The federal government’s Arctic Foreign Policy, announced in 2010, lists “[p]ursuing a strengthened Arctic Council” among Canada’s strategic priorities. Rarely have we been handed such a valuable diplomatic opportunity.

Not since Canada’s earliest explorers raced the roaring Fraser to the sea has a region held such promise—and yet been so vulnerable. We now lead the diplomatic forum that can steward the world’s collective progress towards sustainable prosperity in the Arctic. Ours is an opportunity not to be taken lightly.

Because, as darkness falls around the Louis, in these lonely Arctic waters, it can be all too easy to forget: in this part of the world, Canada is never alone—and this is our time to lead.

Publié parPosted by Action Canada
Sep 8th, 2013
8 Sep 2013

07

Sep

Where’s the Ice?

It’s day two aboard the Coast Guard’s largest icebreaker, and we haven’t seen ice.

In Kugluktuk, on Canada’s Arctic coast, there wasn’t a speck of snow on the tundra, nor any icebergs in the bay. The scientists whom we replaced aboard the Louis had told us at the airstrip that the ship had recently been breaking heavy ice. As we sail northward, we’re still waiting to see some.

Not that we’re disappointed; we need only step out onto the Louis’
outside decks to feel the icy Arctic chill, and we’ve seen snowflakes since last night. We’ll see plenty of ice before we reach Resolute, we’re told, though we likely won’t be breaking it; the thick, multi-year ice through which the Louis was built to sail—and in which the ship spent most of the month of August, with the scientists on board—is many miles to the North and West of our present course.

Even so, there’s far less of it than there once was. On Monday night, we heard from Pierre Leblanc, a retired colonel who was, for five years, the commander of Canada’s forces in the Arctic. On the projector screen in the Louis’ boardroom, Colonel Leblanc showed us image after image of the permanent Arctic ice receding with each passing year. When he turned to his final slide, with an image of today’s polar ice, there was an audible gasp—in terms of sea ice, we are a shadow of our former selves.

Less ice means more shipping. Colonel Leblanc provoked another gasp when he described the rapid growth of maritime traffic through Russia’s Northern Sea Route, a ten-fold increase in the past year alone. As more of the Arctic becomes ice-free during the summer months, central Arctic shipping lanes—which bypass both the Northern Sea Route and Canada’s Northwest Passage—are becoming a very real near-term possibility.

Amid this thaw and transformation are the women and men of Canada’s Coast Guard. Their work is leagues beyond what most Southerners can fathom—done, as it is, in waters that most of us would never even assume are regularly free of ice. Like the Inuit who hunt and trap and fish among the floes and fjords, the Coast Guard’s constant presence is evidence to support Canada’s claim that these straits are internal waters under international law.

Aboard with us this week are Coast Guard oil spill specialists, an ice specialist, search-and-rescue experts, engineers, and mechanics, all of them ready to respond to just about any unforeseen emergency here at the most distant edge of Canada. It is a credit to the Coast Guard that, if a foreign vessel in these waters—our waters—is in distress, Canada will respond.

Publié parPosted by Action Canada
Sep 7th, 2013
7 Sep 2013

07

Sep

Polar Bears!

On Wednesday afternoon, we were in the midst of “Thinking on Your Feet,” a leadership skills session led by Action Canada advisor Prof. Andrea Rose. Our Fellows were each given a prompt—on topics that ranged from foreign investment regulation to military operations in Afghanistan—to speak off-the-cuff for ninety seconds at a time. Any Action Canada alumnus will tell you how nerve-wracking the exercise can be; even experienced public speakers can find themselves tongue-tied in front of their fellow Fellows.

So the adrenaline was flowing, when the announcement came over the Louis’ “pipes”—marine vernacular for the ship’s public-address system—that we had visitors:

“Polar bears off the starboard bow!”

We moved even more quickly than we did during Tuesday’s evacuation drill. In seconds, our delegation was outside, cameras in hand. Sure enough, we soon spotted two polar bears, perched on a small pan of ice as it floated past the ship.

Few Canadians ever get to see these magnificent creatures in the wild—and fewer still see them without fearing for their safety. They are breathtaking.

We were in the middle of the Victoria Strait, nearly forty miles from terra firma. The bears had evidently not wanted for food; one side of the small iceberg was streaked with blood, the remains of their last meal, likely a seal. There was precious little else nearby, but members of the Louis’ crew who joined us on deck assured us that the bears would have no trouble swimming to bigger ice or dry land.

After a few minutes, off they swam—and onward we sailed.

Publié parPosted by Action Canada
Sep 7th, 2013
7 Sep 2013

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