The Kitikmeot has benefitted from the federal government’s efforts to expand and strengthen the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary in the Arctic over the last few years. While Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk have long-established Auxiliary units, Gjoa Haven’s was only stood-up in 2017 as part of the Oceans Protection Plan (OPP), while another unit will soon become operational in Taloyoak. The focus of the OPP on improving marine safety in the Arctic has also led to new training and equipment opportunities for Auxiliary units in the Kitikmeot. Through the Indigenous Community Boat Volunteer Pilot Program, Cambridge Bay ($270,311), Gjoa Haven ($222,187), and Kugluktuk ($246,417) have been able to purchase new SAR boats and related equipment.
In laying out its mission and mandate, a draft Coast Guard Arctic SAR Project report explains that “developing Auxiliary capacity represents an opportunity to marry the strengths, skills, and knowledge of the CCG SAR framework with the strengths, skills and knowledge of the Arctic coastal communities with centuries of local experience” (Canadian Coast Guard, n.d.). Coast Guard Auxiliary units provide a platform to integrate community responders’ intimate knowledge of the land and local environmental conditions into the broader SAR system, while providing SAR skill development. Coast Guard trainers are now coming to the communities on a more regular basis. Adopting a ‘train the trainer’ approach, Auxiliary members have also been prepared to take on training responsibilities – ready to provide ongoing skill development opportunities in their communities. Annual meetings are held in Yellowknife or Hay River, in which auxiliary units have a chance to train with one another and go through tabletop exercises. Through all of these experiences, Auxiliary members learn how to coordinate with the JRCC, aircraft, and other ships, as well as safe boat handling, marine first aid, radio communications, search patterns and CCG operations.
During community-based interviews and roundtables, Inuit Auxiliary members in the Kitikmeot highlighted the value of their units in facilitating the transfer of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and skill development more generally. One commentator in Kugluktuk noted: “There is so much emphasis placed on technology and technical skills. All of that is good. Prep before going out is really good. But, people must still know how to read the land, the sky, the water, the ice, in case things go wrong.” Participation in Auxiliary units encourages skill-building and intergenerational knowledge exchange through training and collective responses on the land. As a new member gains experience, they can pass along their acquired knowledge to another recruit—all of which strengthens the overall SAR system.
The CCGA’s primary role is maritime search and rescue. The vast majority of SAR incidents in the North occur while people are hunting and fishing, or travelling between communities, which is reflected in the missions with which Auxiliary units have been tasked to date. Units are also preparing to respond to growing marine activity throughout the Canadian Arctic – from pleasure craft, to fishing boats, to cruise ships. Furthermore, auxiliaries upload all of their vessel, equipment, and membership information through the safety management system. The expansion and strengthening of the Coast Guard Auxiliary has led to faster and more effective local responses. Auxiliaries upload all of their vessel, equipment, and membership information through the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary Safety Management System, which JRCCs can access. Consequently, when JRCCs require the services of an Auxiliary unit, they can quickly identify with whom they are dealing and the capabilities a unit possesses, thus streamlining and improving the organizational and coordination requirements to conduct a successful SAR mission. Meanwhile, their ability to rapidly deploy, their training, reliable boats, and intimate local knowledge allow these units to effectively deliver SAR services. These efforts are enhanced by unit leaders who ensure that members are always on standby, liaise with Coast Guard and JRCC personnel, direct operations, and can serve as on-scene coordinators. Auxiliary units reduce the reliance of their communities on CCG icebreakers, often situated hours or days away from the location of an incident, and RCAF fixed and rotary-wing aircraft based thousands of miles to the south.
Across the country, CCG Auxiliary members play important roles as “SAR detectives” by collecting information about SAR cases and providing it to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centres. In the North, however, this service becomes even more important given the JRCCs lack of familiarity with the region and the hunting, fishing, and travel activities of its residents, alongside few alternative resources to investigate search and rescue cases. Auxiliaries’ knowledge of local conditions, marine spaces, and the marine activities of their fellow community members make them uniquely suited to be SAR detectives. Throughout the boating season, they can gather and disseminate information on changing environmental conditions and emerging marine risks and challenges. During SAR operations, they gather local intelligence on the condition of missing vessels, the skill of crews, and potential travel routes, which they relay to the JRCC. In case of an overdue boat, for instance, Auxiliary members can call the overdue person/persons family, friends, or other witnesses to gather more information, including their travel plans and preferred hunting/fishing areas. Such detective work can also identify false alarms and prevent the JRCC from unnecessarily deploying icebreaker or RCAF assistance, and thus saving resources that can be used for other SAR cases.
One Auxiliary unit leader in the Kitikmeot explained that during previous marine rescues there were always concerns about whether or not a suitable vessel would be available to execute the search. Now they have access to a safe, reliable, and effective boat with which to perform SAR operations. Another Auxiliary member explained that, “For years and years it seemed like the government had forgotten about the Coast Guard Auxiliaries up here. In the past, it has been hard to keep the unit up and running. We have never received the attention we are getting now. We have training on a regular basis now, funding for a new boat and equipment. We feel supported.”
Conversations with Kitikmeot stakeholders confirm that the Coast Guard should proceed with its plans to expand the Auxiliary, even if funding pressures related to COVID-19 reduce the budget envelope. Outfitting and training Nunavut’s auxiliary units, while prioritizing the employment of Nunavummiut as full-time SAR response officers and trainers, dovetails with Oceans Protection Plan and broader Arctic and Northern Policy Framework priorities related to emergency response capabilities and increased employment opportunities.