OTTAWA—The Trudeau government has promised an infusion of much-needed cash for the Canadian Coast Guard and federal Fisheries Department, which documents show have suffered from years of chronic underfunding.
The question is whether the new funding will be enough.
The new money was included in the federal fiscal update, which the Liberals released to much fanfare on Oct. 24, and works out to more than $1.2 billion over the next six years.
The government says the funds will be used in a variety of ways, including maintenance to keep the Coast Guard’s aging ships, navigational aids and communications equipment in working order.
Money will also earmarked to train new staff, monitor fish stocks, upgrade radio and information networks and for icebreaking services.
The new funds will no doubt be welcomed by coast guard and fisheries officials, who warned Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc when he took over the portfolio last year that they were struggling to make ends meet.
The coast guard’s overall financial situation was considered so severe at that time that the government quietly ordered a review of its real financial risks and requirements.
Fisheries spokeswoman Carole Saindon said the new funding promise arose out of that review, which itself came after officials spent years trying to get more money for “key deficit areas and to carry out our mandate.”
The review showed “a clear and pressing need for new, ongoing investments to ensure the delivery of services that save lives, protect the marine environment, create jobs and drive sustainable economic growth,” she said.
But University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert, who has worked closely with the coast guard, said the new cash represents a fraction of what is really needed, particularly when it comes to buying new ships.
“Good on them for helping on the operational side,” he said. “But $200 million per year? Come on.”
Briefing notes prepared for Leblanc and obtained by The Canadian Press show the budget shortfall has been particularly hard on the coast guard.
The agency relies on a fleet of 116 ships and 22 helicopters as well as 17,000 navigational aids and a network of 300 radio towers across Canada to accomplish this task.
But the briefing notes say that the demands placed on the coast guard had exceeded its $1.1-billion budget, which had forced officials to start making trade-offs.
“For several years,” officials wrote, “CCG has been attempting to protect these services from reductions by reallocating funds from maintenance.”
The decision to divert money away from maintenance isn’t insignificant given the age of the coast guard’s fleet, with many of its ships more than 30 years old and some approaching 50.
“Operating aging vessels is challenging, as older ships break down more frequently and cost more to repair,” Leblanc was told. “In 2013-14, 1,595 operational days were lost due to breakdowns.”
The government is working to replace some of those ships as part of its national shipbuilding strategy, starting with the delivery of a new offshore fisheries science vessel early next year.
But the entire strategy has been marred by delays and cost overruns, which forced the government to look for stop-gaps such as refitting extremely old ships or, when that won’t work, leasing privately owned vessels.
In the meantime, government officials have said they are reviewing both the construction schedules and budgets of the new vessels.
Saindon confirmed that the new money promised this week will not be used either on those new ships, to extend the lives of existing vessels, or to address what many fear is an upcoming shortage of icebreakers.
Officials at Fisheries and Oceans Canada also flagged several money challenges within their department, starting with a lack of funds for fixing and maintaining hundreds of small-craft harbours across the country.
There were also concerns with science and research infrastructure, which officials said was “aging, expensive and risks falling below international standards.”
Huebert said the main problem is that official Ottawa doesn’t consider Canada to be a maritime nation, and that the importance of the coast guard and Fisheries Department are too often out of sight – and out of mind.