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What is the Canadian Coast Guard and what role does it play?[1]

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is federal government organization (within Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)), which owns and operates the government’s civilian fleet and provides maritime services [2] to ensure safe, accessible waterways. It plays a key role in ensuring the sustainable use and development of Canada’s oceans and waterways, notably by providing marine services to waterway users and supporting oceanographic research.

The CCG’s mandate is stated in the Oceans Act (part 3) and Canada Shipping Act (Part 5), which also stipulate the services for which the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard is responsible. Among other things, the Oceans Act defines the Minister’s duties with regard to hydrographic services and marine sciences (part 3).

The services provided by the CCG are essential since they help ensure safe navigation, prevent the formation of ice jams and flooding, and maintain open routes for maritime commerce (goods transport and passenger transport, such as ferry services).


Ice breaking services: why and for whom?

From December to May, icebreakers and hovercrafts operate along Canada’s east coast, from Newfoundland to Montréal, and in the Great Lakes.

From late June to early November, icebreakers operate in the Arctic to assist with shipping and delivering cargo to isolated communities.

Icebreaking services are provided according to the following order of priority:

  1. Distress and emergency situations;
  2. A) Service requests from ferry services provided in accordance with the Terms of Union with Newfoundland;[3]
    B) Requests from other ferry services;
  3. Ships with vulnerable cargo (dangerous goods, potential for pollution, perishables) and vessels transporting cargo which is vital to the survival of certain communities;
  4. Marine traffic and fishing vessels;
  5. Fishing harbour breakouts.

In winter, when the waters of the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, Estuary and Gulf Region and Newfoundland and Labrador Region are covered in ice, the CCG provides ice breaking and ice management services to support safe, efficient movement of commercial ships, fishing vessels and ferries. The availability of these services allows the marine industry to plan its activities and navigate safely without the risk of ships becoming icebound.

Freeing sea lanes from ice is essential for smooth operations in many economic sectors since a great many commercial activities depend on shipping, which enables them to continue in the winter. This is true for popular consumer goods from outside Québec and even Canada (exotic fruits, electronic items, French, Italian, Argentinian, Australian wines, etc.), products processed here using imported raw materials, such as barley used to brew beer (microbreweries), alumina from which the aluminum used to manufacture building materials is produced, outdoor items such as canoes, etc.

Year-round, icebreaking plays a key role in supporting the isolated communities of Eastern Canada, Newfoundland and the Arctic, ensuring the movement of ships carrying supplies (goods and fuels) or passengers from these communities.

Among the icebreakers deployed in Northern Canada, during the summer, in addition to supporting marine navigation, one is chartered by research teams conducting scientific missions. The CCGS Amundsen has been leased since 2003 by the scientific community, which has invested $97 M to operate and maintain research facilities on board.


Coast Guard icebreaking and air cushioned vehicles fleet


The CCG has a fleet of 14 icebreakers in Eastern Canadian waters and 2 air cusioned vehicles:[4]

Two (2) heavy icebreakers: 

  • Louis S. St-Laurent (49 yrs.)
  • Terry Fox (34 yrs.)

Four (4) medium icebreakers:

  • Amundsen (39 yrs.)
  • Des Groseilliers (36 yrs.)
  • Henry Larsen (31 yrs.)
  • Pierre Radisson (40 yrs.)

Eight (8) light or multi-purpose vessels: 

Photo credit: Georges Lawson
  • Sir Wilfrid Laurier (32 yrs.)
  • Edward Cornwallis (32 yrs.)
  • George R. Pearkes (32 yrs.)
  • Ann Harvey (31 yrs.)
  • Martha L. Black (32 yrs.)
  • Sir William Alexander (32 yrs.)
  • Griffon (48 yrs.)
  • Samuel Risley (33 yrs.)
  • Earl Grey (32 yrs.)

Two (2) air cushioned vehicles:

  • Mamilossa
  • Sipu Muin

During winter air cushioned vehicles are used to prevent ice from jamming and to break shoals to maintain marine safety.


Condition of the fleet

The average age of CCG icebreakers is approximately 38 years and a ship’s service life is about 40 years. Given the CCG fleet’s age and condition, many of these icebreakers require various repairs and sometimes their propulsion system needs changing. While this work is being carried out, the vessels are not available for service.

Work to maintain these vessels and extend their service life scheduled until 2021-2022[5] will remove 1-2 vessels from the fleet annually for extended periods of time.

In addition to this scheduled maintenance work, unexpected breakdowns make vessels non-operational. Because of the fleet’s age and condition, unexpected breakdowns are likely to appear more frequently.

In 2011-2016,[6] the service level provided, during the winter season in Southern Canada, was 21.4% lower than the service level required for proper shipping traffic operations. Breaking this statistic down by geographic region shows shortfalls of 30% for the Great Lakes Region, 12% for the Seaway and Gulf Region and 31% for the Chaleur Bay/Northumberland Strait/Newfoundland and Labrador Region.

For 2017-2022, the expected shortfall in service levels compared to needs is approximately 18.5% for all geographic sectors of Southern Canada for the winter season. This forecast does not take potential unexpected breakdowns [7] or specific weather conditions into account. In summer 2017, the Amundsen Science’s research mission had to be cancelled to provide SAR services to Newfoundland, where ice conditions were very heavy and all icebreakers were undergoing maintenance.


Impacts of this situation

Where safety is concerned

Lack of icebreaking or insufficient icebreaking in the shipping channel jeopardizes navigation safety because ships can become icebound or go off course since they cannot navigate in ice-free waters (due to ice or ice jams).

This puts crew safety at risk on board ship and threatens public safety should the ship go off course and hit an infrastructure (e.g. bridge).

Despite maintenance and planned work to extend vessel service life, an aging fleet means unexpected breakdowns, thereby compromising icebreaker availability and effectiveness with regard to tasks to perform.

Eventually, insufficient icebreaking can lead to ice jamming which could prevent the GCC from intervening as well as it should and then drive to flood, especially in spring while ice is melting. In such context the public’s safety is no longer guaranteed.


In economic terms

A shipping channel in which icebreaking is not optimal has repercussions on the entire supply chain (including the logistics chain), causing processing industry supply chain disturbances, which can lead to temporary layoffs, late deliveries, loss of contracts, sales price increases, etc.

It can also affect the waterway’s reputation for reliability and cause shippers to prefer road or rail transport, thereby increasing land-based traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Should the situation be unforeseeable in winter, foreign shipping lines using the St. Lawrence will opt for other maritime routes to ship their products.

Furthermore, floods following ice jamming can cause damages and so cause significant costs for citizens, insurance companies, cities and so on[8].


On scientific research

Lack of icebreaker availability and the order of priority for Canadian Coast Guard operations shorten the time when these vessels should be available for research purposes, losing days at sea for scientific data collection. This would result in late publication of scientific articles, delays in defending PhD and Master’s theses, and, ultimately, the loss of grants and abandoning research projects.

The international reputation of Canadian scientific research in the Arctic also suffers, particularly when projects are led by groups of researchers from different universities.


On isolated communities

Finally, the lack of icebreaker availability has two types of repercussions on isolated communities in Eastern Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Arctic.

  • Economic repercussions

Lack of adequate icebreaking threatens the ability to supply fuel to these communities, thereby compromising their travel and economic activities requiring fuel.

This situation jeopardizes all companies using shipping to import the goods needed for their activities or to export the resulting products.


  • Social repercussions

Since shipping is the preferred mode of transport in an environment marked by harsh weather conditions and relatively few road infrastructures, lack of icebreakers compromises the survival of communities which heavily depend on it for their supply of various goods.


[1] This section is based on information taken from the Canadian Coast Guard website, consulted on June 28, 2018. Source: [Online:]

[2] The goal of marine services is to ensure ships’ safe profitable, efficient movement in Canadian waters. These services include: vessel escorts, harbour breakouts, maintaining shipping routes, providing ice information, etc.

[3] The Atlantic Region includes the Maritimes Region and the Newfoundland and Labrador Region. Source: Canadian Coast Guard – Atlantic Region [Online:, consulted on July 5, 2018].

[4] Source: Canadian Coast Guard website. [Online: Consulted on June 28, 2018.]

[5] Canadian Coast Guard, Icebreaker fleet 2018-2027 maintenance calendar. [Online:]

[6] Canadian Coast Guard, Icebreaker requirements, Annex A, [Online: Consulted on July 5, 2018].

[7] Estimates show that, between 2013 and 2015, Coast Guard icebreakers were non-operational for unexpected reasons for 344 days—almost an entire year. Source: Radio-Canada, November 2, 2016, Marc Godbout, Québec prévient Ottawa que la dégradation des brise-glaces met en péril la Stratégie maritime. [Online:]

[8] In the spring of 2017, major floods had hit Quebec from the Outaouais to Gaspésie. See the CBC file dedicated to this event.  [Online: Consulted on July 18, 2018 ]