Commissioner Jody Thomas – Canadian Coast Guard

Sep 18, 2016

The Canadian Coast Guard, which became a Special Operating Agency in 2005, accomplishes its work with resources at its disposal, but there are undeniable ­deficiencies, some of which undoubtedly prompted Prime Minister Trudeau to prioritize the needs of the Coast Guard in his mandate letter to the Minister. FrontLine editor Chris MacLean interviews Commissioner Jody Thomas about today’s challenges and solutions.

Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas has led a varied management career of public service, beginning at Public Works in Atlantic Canada in 1988, and then over to the West Coast, and eventually to Ottawa and Passport Canada where she rose to the position of Chief Operating Officer. In 2010, she was selected as Deputy Commissioner, Operations at the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) and, on 1 January 2015, became the first woman to be appointed as the CCG Commissioner.

Priorities in the Canadian Coast Guard
Canada’s new government wasted no time in highlighting the Canadian Coast Guard as a fleet refresh priority in the Prime Minister’s November 2015 mandate letter to the Fisheries Minister.

The Prime Minister wasn’t the only one noticing the declining status of the Coast Guard. For a number of years, the Coast Guard has been managing a gap between requirements and budget – a gap that has been increasing due to a significant erosion of purchasing power and the public expectation of more Coast Guard services. A new head of the Agency was appointed in January 2015 – Commissioner Jody Thomas is very focused on that renewal identified by the government.

CCGS Henry Larsen breaks ice during the 2007 Ice Jam that caught some 100 vessels off the coast of Newfoundland.
CCGS Henry Larsen breaks ice during the 2007 Ice Jam that caught some 100 vessels off the coast of Newfoundland. (Photo: CCG)

Shortly after the new Commissioner came on board, the Coast Guard commissioned a third-party report to provide independent advice on the state of the Agency.

In February 2016, Transport Minister Garneau tabled a review of the Canada Transportation Act, which had been commissioned by the previous Government. It recommended a number of significant changes to Canada’s transportation system, some of which related to the North and the marine sector – particularly focusing on an expanded role for the Coast Guard.

A month later, Budget 2016 provided the Coast Guard with significant investments in infrastructure and initiatives such as the re-opening of the Kitsilano Base in Vancouver this year.

Budget 2016 also allocated resources to CCG as it was identified as one of the departments requiring funding to deliver mission-critical services to Canadians – this initiative is being managed by the Treasury Board Secretariat. “While the Coast Guard has experienced spending shortfalls, it has continued to deliver critical services to Canadians. The incremental funding provided in Budget 2016 assists with that delivery. All large, complex organizations must continuously adapt to changes in their environments and circumstances, and the Coast Guard is no exception,” says Thomas.

The daily media began to take notice of this flurry of activity CBC News recently reported that the Coast Guard fleet has “deteriorated” to an extreme degree. “The majority of the Canadian Coast Guard fleet is so old that its book value is almost worthless, says an independent report presented to the Liberal government.”

While that comment certainly has some shock value, it cannot be denied that maintenance costs for older vessels are higher, and servicing takes longer, which means the time available for operational missions is less than optimal.

Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Trenton: Robert Bradbury (left) and Scott Miller ­coordinate response to SAR incidents in Central and Arctic Region.
Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Trenton: Robert Bradbury (left) and Scott Miller ­coordinate response to SAR incidents in Central and Arctic Region. (Photo: Carol Launderville, DFO Communications.)

According to the CBC, the report lays some of the blame at the feet of the Coast Guard itself, suggesting it should have been more aggressive in making its case for better funding. Under the leadership of its new Commissioner, the Coast Guard is now doing just that – being proactive and exacting in its assessments so it can confidently state its requirements and backup its future budget proposals that will allow the organization to fulfill its full public safety mandate.

In the 19 months since her appointment, Commissioner Jody Thomas has been focused on articulating the CCG priorities – narrowing them down to what she calls the five ‘M’s: MissionMandateMoneyMarketing, and Members – and is “steadfast” in adhering to these 5-Ms, which she says are “core to everything we do.” If a task or concern doesn’t advance at least one of the 5Ms, it will be passed along. “Who we are, what we do, what our budget is, and certainly our personnel” are key, she explains. “If a new initiative doesn’t enhance the mission, enhance the mandate, provide better training/opportunity, development for people, if it doesn’t help market or brand the national coast guard as the national institution we are, we don’t do it.”

“Members” is one of those important priorities. “Revitalizing the team and moving forward in lock step to the coast guard of the future,” is key to that progress, says Commissioner Thomas. To that end, she has staffed a strong team of senior leaders who recognize and adhere to the 5-Ms.

The “new team” includes Regional Assistant Commissioners (Western, Central & Arctic, and Atlantic) and Deputy Commissioners. Most were staffed from within the Coast Guard.

CCGS Terry Fox ice breaking on Canada’s many inland waterways.
CCGS Terry Fox ice breaking on Canada’s many inland waterways. (CCG PHOTO)

In addition to sweeping leadership changes within the CCG over the course of the last 19 months, Canada’s Coast Guard has also been working with the new government, briefing the new Minister (former House Leader Dominic LeBlanc was appointed as Fisheries and Coast Guard Minister in May), and Deputy Minister, Catherine Blewett, on the Coast Guard portfolio. Despite having only been in the position since June 2016, Blewett has been providing a “completely different perspective,” attests Commissioner Thomas, adding that the CCG is “really enjoying her leadership… it’s been wonderful for us.”

Undoubtedly, the Coast Guard is looking at a bright future with this government. “Budget 2016 has been really positive for us, we received a lot of money to invest in infrastructure and to carry on with mission critical work,” confirms Thomas. She attributes part of that attention to the “very tangible” results of telling the Coast Guard story effectively. “We were identified in the budget as a department or agency that needed to be looked at further in terms of financial integrity […] we have a very small and tight budget, and we run things very, very carefully. We are very proud of the work we’ve done to document and understand what it costs to take a ship to sea, what it costs to run a station, or to maintain the assets and infrastructure needed to ensure safe navigation – and we have brought precision to our situation, to tell a story to government, and they listened – we’re feeling very positive about that.”

CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, High Endurance Multi-Tasked Vessel.
CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, High Endurance Multi-Tasked Vessel. (CCG PHOTO)

The Commissioner feels CCG is “moving forward” in terms of revitalizing the training and professional development of staff. “When people think about the Coast Guard, they think about the ships – but there are so many people working outside of the fleet,” says Thomas. Noting the magnitude of training and development for the 2600 people who go to sea, for the Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) officers, for all the shore-based staff who run the Coast Guard’s communications network, and for those who design, build, and maintain both electronic and conventional navigation systems, she describes the training piece as a “massive machine” that’s required to keep the iconic red-and-white ships patrolling Canadian waters. “Refreshing, redeveloping and re-energizing the forward look for our staff” is an important thread that weaves through the Commissioner’s vision of the Canadian Coast Guard.

Canada, as much of the population is quick to forget, is a maritime nation with three coasts and large waterways to patrol and keep safe. However, despite periodic re-visitation of the arming issue, Canada’s Coast Guard remains an unarmed civilian authority. Nonetheless, its role in maritime security is fundamental to Canada’s prosperity and safety. “We see security as having a number of fronts – national security, economic security, and environmental security – all are vital to what the Coast Guard does, and that’s a story we haven’t told yet.”
The Coast Guard regularly provides support to Fishery Officers, and sometimes Border officers, for law enforcement – if an armed presence is deemed advisable, RCMP officers will be brought on board the Coast Guard vessel.

Economic Prosperity
The Coast Guard is responsible for the safety and security of shipping within the 200 nautical mile proximity of Canada. “We are a maritime trading nation” and, at times, “an icebound nation” acknowledges the Commissioner. “Keeping ships from going aground; knowing who they are, and where they are; keeping them moving into our major waterways (like the St Lawrence Seaway, Great Lakes, and the St. Clair and Mackenzie rivers); keeping them moving in the ports of Halifax and Vancouver; ice breaking so that goods can move in the winter – that’s all critical to the economic security of the country, and so, we see ourselves as part and parcel in that. We are a safety agency, absolutely, but we are also an economic enabler.”

The support provided by the Coast Guard to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is a very large part of CCG’s mandate of support, most of which could also be recognized for supporting economic prosperity. As part of that ongoing requirement, the government has approved three brand new off-shore fishing science vessels that are being built by Seaspan in Vancouver. Seaspan has partnered with other marine companies to provide highly technical aspects, for instance, Thales France will deliver the electronic systems, and Thales Canada has partnered with Seaspan for many years.

Icebreaking Capability
One of the top CCG priorities in keeping ships safe and trade moving, is its icebreaking and ice-management service.

In response to questions about the icebreaker fleet in particular, the Commissioner concedes: “We can always have more. Our ships are aging, so we are looking at exactly what that capacity needs to be. Our stakeholders want more Coast Guard, but that costs a lot of money.” She tells FrontLine that establishing the right balance between maintaining old ships that need to be refurbished and the investment needed for new ships “is certainly under study right now.”

Maintenance in icy conditions is a challenge.

Thomas asserts that the Coast Guard “can manage the demand” during average ice years, but admits there are “not enough” icebreakers for heavy ice years. She goes on to explain that there can be more need for icebreakers during light ice years because there are more ships moving in and out of the system. The current Coast Guard fleet includes 15 icebreakers, 7 of which are fitted to go to the Arctic. “We could use more ice breakers, absolutely, and we are working on the replenishment of the fleet to get new ice breakers. We have one fleet and two ice breaking seasons – and so bridging that gap between making sure the vessels finish the spring season and are ready to go up to the Arctic for June and July is a very busy time for us. This is where the aging ships start to show the cracks in the system, because their refit periods take longer and longer. We still need to make it up to the Arctic to open the shipping season, but there’s still ice in southern Canada that we’re breaking to get fishing vessels broken out. It’s a massive management exercise of planning to know which ships, which crews, are going to open the season, and who’s going to close the season.”

Search and Rescue
The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans is the lead minister for maritime SAR, which is undoubtedly the highest profile CCG mission in that it touches so many people every day. There are three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres (JRCCs): Halifax, Trenton and Esquimalt that are co-staffed with DND. “Whether we’re coordinating a search with DND, or we’re on the water completing the search, it is the function that we have the most people working at any given day of the year; we save, on average 15 per day, and we assist an additional 52-55 people every day.” Even to the Commissioner, those numbers are “stunning.” She tells FrontLine that there is “search and rescue activity on every body of water, every day in Canada. Unfortunately the fatality rate is too high and so SAR is very critical – the search part, the rescue part, knowing where they are, and where we have to put emphasis on prevention.”

SAR specialists from CCG French Creek Station respond during one of many incidents where the Coast Guard is called into action. (Photo : Michael Mitchell)

The Office of Boating Safety is under Transport Canada’s purview, but the Coast Guard sees evidence that too many people continue to go out on the water without proper safety equipment such as personal flotation devices, beacons, EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicator Radios), or they go without letting someone know where they are headed. Tragedies are not confined to novice boaters, even experienced sailors run into trouble, as many sad examples can attest. “We are a huge maritime nation between the rivers and the lakes and the oceans and getting the word out about safety on the water is hugely important and something that we focus on,” says the Commissioner. “We use Twitter, which has become a very important tool to promote safety on the water. We work with Transport Canada and other safety partners through cross-promotional activities that serve to remind everyone of the importance of staying safe on the water, no matter what you do, how long you are out there, or your level of maritime experience.” We have dedicated lifeboat stations around the country, all of our large ships are involved in SAR.”

Coast Guard SAR teams exercise with Canadian Armed Forces SAR Technicians to be ready for  all sorts of rescues on the waterways.
Coast Guard SAR teams exercise with Canadian Armed Forces SAR Technicians to be ready for all sorts of rescues on the waterways. 

In the summer, CCG hires and trains students to crew the Inshore Rescue Boats as part of the Federal Student Work Employment Program (FSWEP). Each year, crews from the 25 IRB stations across the country are prepared to respond to vessel / medical emergencies, inform boaters about safety regulations, and conduct search-and-rescue operations as necessary. “These kids (mostly university students and naval reservists due to a partnership with the Royal Canadian Navy), provide 24/7 rescue service in locations all over this country. They’re mariners, they understand boats, they’re taught search and rescue techniques, life saving techniques, and they make miraculous rescues every single summer.”

Each station is equipped with a Fast Rescue Craft capable of operating at speeds in excess of 24 knots and there have been “amazing rescues”. One well-publicized rescue by the Nootka BC IRB crew, saved a fishing guide who was knocked overboard by a wave (not wearing a life jacket) during less than ideal weather. “He is alive today because a group of our students were first on scene,” says the Coast Guard Commissioner, “it’s an incredible program.” Of course it’s not all dramatic rescues, but “if they save that one life, it’s worth every penny we put into it.”

SAR specialists on board a Coast Guard zodiac.
SAR specialists on board a Coast Guard zodiac. (Photo: M. Champagne, DFO)

Many are attracted to the Coast Guard because of their interest in search and rescue. “We’ve had a really successful summer this year with the Inuit Learning Development Program. Youngsters who work in these programs during the summer months are often drawn to the Coast Guard College as they get older,” she notes.

The 2016 Liberal Budget set aside $45.9 million to refurbish and improve both aids to navigation and shore infrastructure – to improve reliability and to begin the ‘greening’ process (turning to solar energy for some of the more remote sites rather than generators and fuel).

Some 11 nautical miles from Victoria Harbour, British Columbia, the Race Rocks Lighthouse has stood since 1860 as a beacon to warn of dangerous currents at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Some 11 nautical miles from Victoria Harbour, British Columbia, the Race Rocks Lighthouse has stood since 1860 as a beacon to warn of dangerous currents at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (FrontLine Photo: Chris MacLean)

The Coast Guard manages some 17000 fixed and floating aids to navigation. Keeping this vast infrastructure functioning well is extremely expensive, and Thomas notes that the budget infusion of funds to focus on that specific aspect was “the first investment of that nature to the Coast Guard in a decade. It made a huge difference to us, and people are scrambling to get that spent.” A lot of the refurbishment work can only be done in the summer months, she says, which requires “a lot of planning through the year to get ships out, get people deployed and get the work done. It’s construction, it’s updating, it’s new technology – it’s a very busy program. The CCG’s infrastructure is all over the country and it’s a high-demand aspect of our business.”

Aids to navigation
The omnipresent network of buoys that float on Canada’s waterways, and the many structures and markers along the land, comprise critical aids the navigator will use to ascertain where the vessel is safe to transit. “That infrastructure is on all three coasts, although it’s less developed along the Arctic,” says Commissioner Thomas, “and many inland waters, Great lakes, and the St. Lawrence seaway.” Canada’s Coast Guard is tasked with keeping the vessels on this H2O highway safe. “It sounds small, but every aid to navigation needs to get pulled out of the water and repainted on a cyclical basis. Every aid that’s based on shore – it could be a lighthouse it could be just a day marker – needs to be kept painted to ensure its visibility and usability, needs to be lit, and the trees around them need to be trimmed so they don’t obscure the view for the mariner. It’s a massive investment of infrastructure that dates back to the beginning of Canada to keep people safe.”

Deck crew of CCGS Sir William Alexander conduct buoy maintenance operations. (CCG Photo)

Partnerships and leadership
“Is the coast guard armed?” This is probably the most common question posed to the Coast Guard regarding maritime security. Answer: No, they are not. “We don’t have an overt security mandate right now but we are a critical partner of maritime security – supporting the security mandates of the CBSA, DND, RCMP. We are the visible presence in the Arctic in terms of maritime domain awareness and maritime surveillance. We now have nine vessels working either in the conservation and protection program ensuring the legality of the fisheries with DFO. We have the Marine Security Enforcement Teams (MSET) program with the RCMP with the Hero Class vessels in the Great Lakes,” she notes.

June 2016 –  Commissioner Jody Thomas presents a CCG Commendation to outgoing Royal Canadian Navy ­Commander Mark Norman.
June 2016 – Commissioner Jody Thomas presents a CCG Commendation to outgoing Royal Canadian Navy ­Commander Mark Norman. (CCG Photo)

Security and intelligence requires information, and “the maritime domain awareness that feeds the decision-making for maritime security is the Coast Guard feed,” Thomas explains. “We are part of the 24/7 presence in the three Marine Security Operations Centres (MSOC) across the country. We are a very critical, if lesser-known, partner in the maritime security domain. The MSOCs play a critical role in the national security of the country, and we provide 80% of the information used in the MSOC.

Commissioner Thomas meets Aboriginal CCG summer program students. From left: Chase Tyrrell, from the Mohawk Nation; Commissioner Thomas; Eric Arsenault with the National Command Centre; Alannah Kataluk-Primeau and Joseph Primeau from the Inuit Learning Development Program.
Commissioner Thomas meets Aboriginal CCG summer program students. From left: Chase Tyrrell, from the Mohawk Nation; Commissioner Thomas; Eric Arsenault with the National Command Centre; Alannah Kataluk-Primeau and Joseph Primeau from the Inuit Learning Development Program. (CCG Photo)

First Nations and Inuit
The Inuit Learning Development Program is another initiative designed to broaden the diversity of the Coast Guard. “The more people that we can get from the north working with us, the better,” says Commissioner Thomas. She believes that partnerships with First Nations and Inuit people are critical to the Coast Guard. “Canada is a massive country and so, engaging our first nations colleagues and friends in SAR and environmental response is so important to what we do – we can’t be everywhere and they live there, we have the opportunity to combine modern technique with local and traditional knowledge to see that we’re responding in the best way.” With the rapid effects of climate change, it is not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when what is now a seasonal marine communications center in Iqaluit may one day be open all year long, managing traffic in the arctic. “The more people from the north in that station, the better,” the Commissioner repeats for emphasis. It’s not just talk, the Coast Guard is actively making that happen, in fact, two teenagers from Iqaluit were exposed to life in the Coast Guard this past summer. “We had these two great kids, a brother and sister from Iqaluit, Alannah Kataluk-Primeau and Joseph Primeau, who spent four months seeing various parts of the Coast Guard. In another part of the country, Chase Tyrrell, a young man from the Mohawk Nation, worked with us over the summer and is now interested in the Coast Guard College. Little by little we’re getting into communities – one person can make a big difference.”

A remarkable example of the synergies to be gained by engaging with First Nations and Inuit for public safety, and SAR in particular, was the Leviathan II tragedy in Tofino last fall. The first people to respond after the whale-watching vessel capsized, were from the Ahousaht Nation. “That happens all the time, “ says Commissioner Thomas, “so partnering, ensuring there’s training, ensuring there’s equipment, if there’s oil in the water you want the local people who know how the water moves, where the mussel beds and oyster beds are, where the local food sources are, that they’re out there responding with us, and making sure that we’re responding properly, – are all critical to the protection of people and the environment.”

CCG 429 helicopter flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
CCG 429 helicopter flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (CCG Photo)

The Province of British Columbia has also made inroads in that respect, announcing a five-year, renewable Protocol Agreement with the Ahousaht, worth $1.25 million. The parties have agreed to work together to identify and develop business ventures and provide jobs for the Ahousaht people. After recognizing the community heroism in responding to the Leviathan II tragedy, Premier Christy Clark announced a $50,000 grant to support the needs of Ahousaht emergency response services.

Recruitment & Retention
Recruitment is typically a challenge in the maritime environment because working ‘at sea’ is not for everyone. Commissioner Thomas uses the word “unique” to describe work on the water. “You have to really want to do it.” The Coast Guard is forced to compete with private industry, offshore industries, the navy and, in some cases, local police units, for people who are attracted to a life on the water. To redirect a maritime beer slogan to life on the water, it is absolutely true that “those who like it, like it a lot.” But those who like life on the water are low in relative numbers of the population.

CCG offers great choices for women interested in a maritime career.
CCG offers great choices for women interested in a maritime career. (CCG Photo)

“It’s fabulous work, it’s fascinating work, but it’s not going to appeal to everyone,” acknowledges Thomas, “and so we’re in constant competition with other entities for those types of people.” Despite the high demand, the Commissioner asserts that the Coast Guard manages to “get the best and the brightest” through targeted recruitment. “We recruit through a number of different routes. For instance, we have our own Coast Guard College, where a new group of 60 students just started.”

To be qualified to work on a Coast Guard ship, graduates of the 4-year program will have earned a diploma from the Coast Guard College, a Bachelor of Technology in Nautical Sciences from Cape Breton University, and commercial certification recognized by Transport Canada. The organization also recruits from private maritime universities such as Memorial University in Newfoundland, Institut Maritime du Québec (Rimouski) , the BC Institute of Technology, and Georgian College.

“The CCG is working on an updated Recruitment Strategy, one that is truly national in scope where a greater awareness about the CCG College and Careers can be achieved across the country. This includes an increased use of social media, webcasts and other tools for maximum reach. We are a very small organization in comparison to some of the other ones in the private sector and the navy, so we have to use word of mouth and social media such as YouTube and Twitter, and we use people in our college to get the word out about this fabulous career opportunity.”

Similar, in fact, to all of the responder services, gender parity and minority representation are in constant deficit. “We struggle,” is her short answer to that issue. “It’s something I’m really quite focused on,” Commissioner Thomas expands. “We’re 10-15% women at sea and the number of women we’re recruiting into the college isn’t really going up year over year.” The reasons the Coast Guard isn’t as appealing to women are somewhat confounding to those who are already in it. “I think we’re a great opportunity especially for that young girl who doesn’t want to sit in an office, wants something different to do, I don’t think they hear about us. We have to find a way of reaching people who don’t otherwise know about us.”

Preparing  to deploy scientific equipment
Preparing to deploy scientific equipment (CCG Photo)

It seems many of the women who apply to the CCG College have been influenced by their male relatives. “We’re not doing a good enough job on that front and there’s more of that to come. We were the first uniformed service to integrate women; young women have attended the Coast Guard College since 1979; Miriam Van Roosmalen became the first female commanding officer of a Coast Guard ship in October 1987, providing another excellent role model; and we have female directors throughout the organization who are seagoing (chief engineers, master mariners, captains). We need to get the word out in a different way because this is an organization that welcomes diversity, bottom line. It’s one of the things that we’re focusing on with our workforce development group this year. In talking with more of the young female graduates and some of the older more experienced people who have come through our fleet, there are things that we can do to get the word out in a different way. In terms of cultural diversity, there are no limitations in the Coast Guard, if you’re able to pass the medical fitness test while wearing respiratory protection, we welcome you, there just aren’t limitations, I believe we’re an employer of choice.”

As for retention, the Commissioner suggests the Coast Guard’s ability to retain people fluctuates with the economy; attrition also takes its toll. “When off-shore or international shipping is strong, we lose people easily. Problems with the Phoenix pay system aren’t helping retention right now, but on the whole, we’re pretty stable.”

Coast Guard Stations
In August, with great fanfare, Minister LeBlanc officially re-opened the Coast Guard station in Kitsilano, which had been closed down in 2013 to save money. “What’s unique to the re-opening is that we’ve made it into a multi focused base,” says Thomas. “It’s going to have SAR capacity, it’s going to have environmental response capacity, and it’s going to become a training center for us to work with coastal First Nations – training them on environmental response technique, working with them on training exercises, simulations, practicing, having a center of expertise for them to draw upon when something happens in their community – it has a multiplier effect up and down the coast on capacity to respond and keep our coastline clean so it’s hugely important.”

With today’s complex security requirements, a couple of coast guard stations are no longer enough. “It’s about partnership, it’s about local knowledge, traditional knowledge, modern techniques, using as many people and assets and information as possible to ensure that we respond to incidents properly and effectively. So, whether it’s in BC, Nova Scotia or Nunavut, I think that partnership is critical to maritime and marine safety, and also to the future of the Coast Guard.”

Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief of FrontLine Magazine.