The Canadian Coast Guard: Navigating With Arctic Partners through the COVID-19 Pandemic
Provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada
In March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, a public health emergency was also affirmed in all regions of Canada, including the Arctic.
Relationships with Inuit, First Nations and Métis partners and Northern communities is a priority for the Canadian Coast Guard, and the recent pandemic only underscored this importance.
During the early days of COVID-19 and throughout the 2020 operational season, Coast Guard worked with its Arctic partners to address the unexpected challenges. These relationships contributed to the successful delivery of Coast Guard key programs and services during these unprecedented times.
Pivoting and Persevering During COVID-19
In a regular Arctic operational season, the Canadian Coast Guard delivers essential programs and services in the Arctic from May to November such as icebreaking, marine navigation, search and rescue (SAR), and environmental response (ER). Coast Guard also conducts training and exercising with the Coast Guard Auxiliary and other domestic and international partners, and undertakes community engagement across the Arctic. The unprecedented COVID-19 public health emergency directives meant that Coast Guard had to respond quickly and adjust its Fleet Operational Plan for the 2020 summer season, as well as plans for other essential programs to ensure no loss of services to Arctic communities.
Nationally, the Coast Guard’s initial response was to implement its Business Continuity Plan, establish a National Emergency Coordination Centre (under the Incident Command System) and issue a series of National Standard Operating Procedures to ensure the health and safety of nearly 6,000 Coast Guard employees from coast to coast to coast, whether sea-going or shore-based. Most office workers were sent to work from home in March 2020, while Coast Guard’s essential employees providing critical services remained at their posts throughout the pandemic.
Coast Guard Arctic Region immediately adjusted course and focused on a new plan for marine navigating and icebreaking in support of community re-supply to Inuit, First Nations and Métis partners and northern communities, and delivering essential SAR, ER and marine navigation services.
As advice from public health officials continued to evolve on a daily basis, Coast Guard took clear measures to adapt to the pandemic, including physical distancing, self-isolation, mandatory personal protective equipment and daily health screening, strict cleaning and disinfecting measures aboard ships, cancellation of shore leave and the testing of all sea-going personnel for COVID-19. Plans were made to conduct crew changes in the south instead of in the Arctic due to territorial travel bans and to limit community interaction, to minimize the risk of spreading the virus in remote and isolated communities.
Exceptions were later granted by the territorial governments and public health officials for some travel into the Arctic with specific guidelines, but in other cases, alternate measures were taken such as the mandatory self-isolation for 14 days in Winnipeg, Manitoba for all crews working at the Inshore Rescue Boat North station in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and self-isolation in Ottawa, Ontario and other southern locations for officers working in the Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
While ship-based community engagement was not possible in the 2020 season, later during the pandemic, once the Northwest Territories-Nunavut “travel bubble” was introduced, and with the appropriate public health guidelines, Coast Guard resumed in-person community engagements.
Collaborating with Partners on Health and Safety
In order to change course for the 2020 operational season, Coast Guard brought together Inuit, First Nations and Metis partners, territorial and provincial governments, public health officials, other federal government departments and industry to urgently discuss the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions, identify possible solutions, seek exceptions and to manage expectations.
The number one priority was the health and safety of crews and community members during the Arctic operational season. In close collaboration with Transport Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, Coast Guard engaged Arctic partners on the best approach to safely deliver essential goods such as food, medical supplies, fuel, building supplies and more.
Following a series of meetings, a plan was endorsed for Coast Guard’s icebreakers to head north as planned in support of community re-supply. Protocols were agreed to in the event of an outbreak of COVID-19 on a vessel, a SAR or an ER incident, requirement for a medivac from a vessel, use of local northern medical facilities, crew changes and other operational considerations. And a decision was taken by Transport Canada to ban pleasure craft and cruise ships from Arctic waters to further mitigate the risk of spreading of the virus to northern communities.
The cooperation between industry partners was excellent, and lessons learned about operating in a COVID-19 environment were readily shared from the international shipping community and applied to the Canadian Arctic operational season. Inuit, First Nations and Metis governments and organizations outlined their expectations, priorities, risks and capacity, and shared community concerns, underscoring their willingness to support safe re-supply.
2020 Operational Season Results
Despite the pandemic, Coast Guard icebreakers successfully followed through on operational and program commitments in the Arctic including community re-supply and icebreaking, conducted hydrographic surveys, maintained navigational aids and supported science programs. Coast Guard remained on standby in the Arctic, ready to respond to any emergency with operational readiness, quick action and a reallocation of its resources.
At this moment, seven of the eight Coast Guard icebreakers sent to the Arctic have returned south after a safe and successful operational season in the Arctic. Crews remained healthy, there were no major ER or SAR incidents, no community spread of COVID-19; and community re-supply was safely managed, including essential re-supply to mines and the US base at Thule. Aids to Navigation were placed, opportunistic multibeam sonar mapping of the Arctic floor bed was undertaken to chart safe corridors, and scientific research was conducted aboard Coast Guard’s ships.
As of August 31, 2020, the mid-way point in the 2020 operational season, Coast Guard had logged 37 commercial escorts, 15 helo-based ice reconnaissance missions, one commercial harbour breakout and 45 Arctic-based emergencies requiring deployment/taskings of SAR assets. All vessels in the Arctic were equipped and ready to deal with emergencies such as a marine pollution incident, while preparedness and readiness activities continue all year long.
Navigating Together Beyond 2020
The relationships that have been developed, both prior to and during the pandemic, have highlighted the importance of working in collaboration with Inuit, First Nations and Metis communities, governments and organizations, and northern partners on key Coast Guard programs and services. Frequent and consistent communication with its Arctic partners has allowed Coast Guard to better understand and support priorities.
Throughout the pandemic, Inuit, First Nations and Metis and industry partners demonstrated their adaptability and resiliency, ability to make collective and rapid decisions, and to work together to keep communities and crews safe in the Canadian Arctic.
As we continue to navigate together through these extraordinary times, Coast Guard remains committed to working with our partners to address concerns, and to re-prioritize and adjust course when necessary. Our continued engagement with Arctic partners on innovative ways to move forward despite the pandemic is already laying solid footing for the 2021 operational season – whatever it may bring!
ArcticNet extends its thanks to Fisheries and Oceans Canada for writing about their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic.