Harper on hot seat over 'glaring weaknesses' in country's Arctic rescue system

New report warns of "glaring weaknesses" in Canada's ability to respond to Arctic emergencies

HAY RIVER, N.W.T. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper is touting the Canadian Rangers as a pillar of search and rescue in the North — even as a newly released defence report warns of “glaring weaknesses” in Canada’s ability to respond to Arctic emergencies.

The comprehensive Defence Science Advisory Board report describes rescue missions in the Far North as “significant and complex,” noting Ottawa wants to cobble together a series of new international partnerships to address the challenge.

The wide-ranging study points out that while the Canadian Coast Guard and the RCMP have significant roles to play in an Arctic crisis, they are sometimes not on the same page as National Defence.

“A lack of integration could hinder an effective response to a crisis or emergency,” said the review.

The 72-page analysis, written in April 2012, cites 27 search-and-rescue incidents in the North since 2009 that it says exposed “glaring weaknesses” — including the limited number of military and civilian aircraft available to respond to emergencies over the vast open territories.

The former military commander in the country’s Far North warned researchers, for instance, that the air force’s C-138 Twin Otters were in urgent need of replacement. The government’s long-promised fixed-wing search-and-rescue program remains mired in bureaucratic and industry consultation.

The report also concludes Canada doesn’t have enough ships able to respond to maritime disasters, including oil spills, that major communication “voids” exist above the Northwest Passage, and that the Rangers who are able to respond in an emergency have no air-mobile or sea-lift capabilities.

The report, which looked at where defence fits into the government’s northern strategy, specifically recommended the Rangers get the training and equipment to mount more than just land-based rescues.

Last spring, the auditor general warned that the county’s search-and-rescue system was near the “breaking point” — a blistering report that prompted former defence minister Peter MacKay to institute a series of regular reviews.

“We are examining that very issue,” Harper said Tuesday in the middle of his week-long tour of the North.

“As you know, we have recently completed significantly expanding the Canadian Ranger program, which is a vital part of the search-and-rescue network that we have, particularly in the more remote parts of the Territories.”

Harper was to join the reservists in a camping expedition in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

The Rangers, numbering just under 5,000, are reservists — part-time soldiers — recruited from aboriginal communities and sprinkled across the vast reaches of the North in five distinct geographic locations.

They patrol on foot and snowmobile, and are considered the military’s biggest success stories in the region.

A spokeswoman for newly appointed Defence Minister Rob Nicholson says exercising sovereignty is a “cornerstone of our agenda,” noting the government recently delivered on an Arctic warfare training centre.

A big preoccupation for the military is beefing up its surveillance ability in the region and there are plans on the books to eventually link more satellites with drones and other sensors.

But it is a slow, painful process, the report said.

“In the short term, situational awareness in the North may not develop quickly enough to support defence planning or enhance responsiveness to a growing number of emerging situations resulting from increased activity in the North.”

To address that, National Defence and the Pentagon are in the process of formalizing and implementing a working plan for enhanced co-operation in the Arctic, including multilateral exercises to overcome “capability gaps.”

Canada and Britain have also tried to get Iceland into a joint search-and-rescue agreement; Canada has also been talking with Russia about a joint rescue program.

The eight nations, which are part of the Arctic Nations Council, signed their own deal in 2011.