KEN MACQUEEN reports from HMCS Algonquin on the state of our coastal defence
ON GUARD FOR THEE
“Where will the next shock come from? It may again descend from the air, but it is just as likely to come from the sea. Perhaps from a container, given that only a small percentage of containers are searched at U.S. or Canadian ports. Or, through the hijacking of a commercial vessel. Or, loaded onto small vessels, the kind that smugglers have used successfully for centuries to unload in remote coves and the neglected smaller ports that dot Canada’s coastlines. ” —October 2003: Canada’s Senate Committee on National Security and Defence considers the next terrorist strike on North America
CANADA HAS almost 250,000 km of coast, some 11 million sq. km of ocean territory— and a defence capability that offers little comfort to its closest neighbour and ally. Reversing this perception has become a belated federal priority, which may explain why a binational flotilla of ships with big guns churned the waters off the West Coast the very February day federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale boosted defence spending in the Liberal government’s budget. The potential influx of illegal migrants, smugglers and extremists is not just a domestic concern. Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, no one cares as passionately about the defence of Canada as does the United States of America.
Progress, from the American point of view, has been uneven. Most recently, Canada refused to sign on to the U.S. ballistic missile defence system. Still, the Liberals did boost military spending by $12.8 billion over five years. Proof, Prime Minister Paul Martin says, of a commitment to North American security. But Washington is skeptical. Paul Cellucci, the Bush administration’s outspoken ambassador to Canada, is ending his tenure in Ottawa much as it began, by semaphoring a lack of faith in Canada’s ability to guard the top part of the continent from terrorist incursion.
The Canadian navy’s motto being “Ready Aye Ready,” there were no such doubts aboard HMCS Algonquin on budget day as it ripped across Juan de Fuca Strait at 25 knots in fair weather and flat seas. “There’s no question in my mind I have what I need to do the job,” said the destroyer’s commanding officer, Capt. Ron Lloyd, taking part in a Canada-U.S. security exercise known
as Sea Barrier. The navy is playing an increasing role off Canada’s coasts. Lloyd says skills he acquired tracking and boarding hostile vessels during two tours as a captain in the Persian Gulf serve well in his own backyard. As he spoke, the ship closed in on a vessel of interest—the villain’s role in this exercise played by the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Below decks, Algonquin’s classroom-sized operations room was lit with the eerie glow of computer screens as crew tracked one of the continent’s busiest waterways, coordinated communications, and acted as command centre for part of the four-day exercise.
As military manoeuvres go, Sea Barrier produced the requisite level of mayhem. Rogue ships were intercepted and boarded. A fire aboard a tugboat produced a dozen casualties. Fifteen illegal aliens were yanked off a ship before they hit Canadian soil. A cruise ship was held hostage by terrorists equipped with high explosives.
It’s a scary new world. Containing such chaos requires unprecedented levels of domestic and bilateral co-operation. The new enemy has no face or flag. “We need to move beyond the paradigm of defending Canada against the Red aggressor,” says Cmdr. Darren Hawco, part of the team that spent months planning Sea Barrier. “We are preserving Canadian sovereignty, in all that means.” The navy’s lead role meant coordinating a bureaucratic tower of Babel: dozens of RCMP emergency response team members in their own flotilla
KEN MACQUEEN reports from HMCS Algonquin on the state of our coastal defence
of high-speed inflatables and catamarans, the marine enforcement team of the yearold Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, and two cutters of the U.S. Coast Guard, responsible for policing U.S. coastal waters and ports. Remarkably, the exercise was the first involving all agencies watching the coast. Lessons were learned, communication glitches overcome and, yes, the cruise ship was saved. “Like any movie,” said Lloyd, after Algonquin returned to CFB Esquimalt, its home port outside Victoria, “the good guys win.”
In the real world, of course, bad guys don’t follow the script. Maybe they attack one of the vessels of the Washington state or B.C. ferry systems. Maybe they hole an oil tanker sailing south with Alaskan crude. Or they hide a dirty nuclear device or chemical weapon in one of millions of containers that freighters carry into Halifax, or up the Juan de Fuca Strait—the waterway between Vancouver Island and Washington state that feeds the ports of Vancouver, Seattle and Tacoma.
Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate national security and defence committee, can conjure up many such ugly scenarios—the collective nightmares of security experts, compiled in the committee’s scathing report on maritime defence. Not enough has changed in the 16 months since its release, he says. The reality is still summarized in the report’s title—“Canada’s Coastlines: The Longest Under-Defended Borders in the World.” His committee was in Esquimalt and Vancouver last week for follow-up meetings at the base and Vancouver’s port. Canadian complacency, he says, stems from a long-held view that the military is a force to deploy in remote lands for distant conflicts. “Frankly, Canadians haven’t felt very threatened in a long time,” Kenny says. “Big ocean on the left, big ocean on the right. Snow to the north, friends to the south. What, me worry?” The sad fact is, Canada doesn’t even need to be the target to be flattened economically. All it takes is a deadly container passing through Vancouver to visit havoc on the U.S. “If, through bad luck or bad planning or a lack of resources, that did happen,” says Kenny, “Vancouver harbour would be shut
down for a long, long time. The economy in B.C. would be in terrible shape.” And yet, the committee found that just three per cent of containers arriving in Canada are inspected. As dismal as that rate is, it’s twice the rate the U.S. was inspecting.
America has invested massively in domestic security, as anyone arriving at a U.S. airport or border crossing can’t fail to notice. It is also bolstering its Coast Guard, which, unlike Canada’s, has a military mandate to guard the coast. It is acquiring new vessels, and adding 5,000 staff, and has stepped up patrols. None of this has erased the overarching sense of vulnerability Americans feel since 9/11. The air attacks prompted a hard look at other areas of weakness, says Coast Guard Rear Admiral Jeffrey Garrett, commander of the Seattle-based district that patrols the Pacific Northwest. “It certainly brought into focus the fact that our maritime borders were pretty much defenceless.” They still are underdefended, he says, much as the Canadian Senate committee concludes. He cites the Sea Barrier exercise as welcome evidence that both nations now recognize that their security needs are as intertwined as their economies.
ITS A scary new world, requiring unprecedented levels of co-operation. The new enemy has no face or flag.
Canada has made strides in coastal surveillance. A national security policy released last spring mandated increased co-operation among Canadian maritime agencies and with the U.S. Two longrange radar stations, capable of tracking shipping up to 200 nautical miles out, are in the testing phase on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Taking shape in a series of windowless rooms at CFB Esquimalt is a new Marine Security Operations Centre, meant to combine every surveillance asset Canada has on the West Coast. A similar centre in Halifax monitors East Coast traffic. By this summer, the navy will share space and information with Transport Canada, the RCMP, the Canadian Border Services Agency, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard. “Collectively, we can paint a far more accurate marine picture than we can individually,” says navy Cmdr. Al James, who heads the centre. It’s a daunting prospect. The computer screens tracking Juan de Fuca Strait are alive with hun-
dreds of vessels: freighters, ferries, barges, tugs, tankers, pleasure craft and cruise ships. Hawco, his naval colleague, likens the waterway to the vital and vulnerable Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. “You look at the value of it and you realize, as a choke point, it is susceptible.”
Kenny wants the government to move beyond theoretical exercises. The committee recommends a more substantial role for Canada’s “toothless” Coast Guard, surveillance of the Great Lakes—“the soft underbelly of Canadian coastal defence”—and a public inquiry into port security.
A commuter helicopter flight from Victoria to Vancouver captures the reality of Canada’s biggest port on any given day. Nine freighters sit at anchor in the approach to Burrard Inlet, waiting to unload. The downtown cruise ship terminal, surrounded by business towers, condos and hotels, glows in the evening light, readying for the first ships of spring.
Beside it, huge orange cranes stack long rows of shipping containers, the building blocks of the provincial economy.
A day earlier, back in Esquimalt, Barry McKee, director of the Canada Border Ser-
vices Agency for the West Coast and Yukon District, considered all those containers—and the trouble they could conceal. “What can you ship in a container?” he asked with a rhetorical shrug. “Just about everything.” lifl
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.