Arctic Waters Surveillance

Opening Statement before the Standing Committee on National Defence

Arctic Waters Surveillance

(Report 6—2022 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada)

8 December 2022

Karen Hogan, Fellow Chartered Professional AccountantFCPA, Fellow Chartered AccountantFCA
Auditor General of Canada

Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our report on the surveillance of Canada’s Arctic waters, which was tabled in the House of Commons on November 15th. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people. Joining me today are Nicholas Swales, the principal who was responsible for the audit, and Chantal Thibaudeau, the director who led the audit team.

In recent decades, Canada’s Arctic waters have become more accessible, as summer sea ice has declined and navigation technologies have improved. This has generated interest and competition in the region, significantly increasing ship traffic and affecting local communities. Growing maritime traffic increases the risk of unauthorized access, illegal activities, and safety and pollution incidents.

For this audit, we wanted to know whether key federal organizations built the maritime domain awareness needed to respond to safety and security risks and incidents associated with increasing vessel traffic in Arctic waters.

No federal organization is solely responsible for the surveillance of Canada’s Arctic waters. In our audit, we included the five organizations that are mainly responsible: Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, National Defence, and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

We found that over the past decade, these organizations have repeatedly identified gaps in the surveillance of Arctic waters, but they have not taken action to address them. These gaps include limited capabilities to build a complete picture of ship traffic in the Arctic and the inability to track and identify vessels that don’t use digital tracking systems, either because they don’t have to or because they are not complying with requirements.

Collaboration is important to mitigate gaps in maritime domain awareness. Coastal communities contribute information through direct observation. Federal initiatives, such as the Marine Security Operations Centre in Halifax, also play a key role. However, we found that weaknesses in the mechanisms that support information sharing, decision making, and accountability affected the centre’s efficiency.

Arctic waters surveillance relies on several types of equipment, such as satellites, aircraft, and ships. We found that much of this equipment is old and its renewal has been delayed to the point that some equipment will likely need to be retired before it can be replaced. This is the situation for the Canadian Coast Guard’s icebreakers and Transport Canada’s single patrol airplane: They are near the end of their service lives and likely to be retired before new equipment can be delivered. Satellites are also nearing the end of their service lives and currently do not meet surveillance needs. Replacements in all cases are many years away.

We also found that the infrastructure projects aimed at supporting the surveillance aircraft and offshore patrol ships were delayed. For example, the Nanisivik Naval Facility, intended to support government vessels in Arctic waters, is behind schedule and has been reduced in scope to the point that it will operate only about 4 weeks per year. As a result, Royal Canadian Navy ships may not be resupplied where and when needed.

Our 2021 audit of the National Shipbuilding Strategy raised concerning delays in the delivery of the combat and non-combat ships that Canada needs to meet its domestic and international obligations. That audit also noted that further delays could result in several vessels being retired before new vessels are operational. In this audit, we found that those delays persist. Effective surveillance in the Arctic relies on marine vessels, aircraft, and satellites, all of which are aging. The government urgently needs to address these long‑standing issues and put equipment renewal on a sustainable path to protect Canada’s interests in the Arctic.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.