Interview article

LGen Walter Semianiw

Canada Command
CHRIS MacLEAN  |  Mar 15, 2011

For an update on the important work and priorities of Canada Command, ­FrontLine recently sat down with Lieutenant-General Walter Semianiw ­(pronounced se-mee-a-nov), who assumed Command of the organization in July 2010.

Sgt Conrad Cowan (left), a SAR Tech with the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Esquimalt, BC, gives LGen Walter Semianiw an overview of his workstation, located at Joint Task Force Pacific (JTFP) Headquarters in Her Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard Esquimalt.

Established in 2006 as part of Canada’s response to the rapidly changing security environment of today’s increasingly volatile world, Canada Command – an arm of the Department of National Defence – has a mandate to protect the safety of Canadians at home. To accomplish this, it must concern itself with a wide range of possible threats and hazards (everything from public safety to national security and defence). Over the last five years, Canada Command has developed into a multi-faceted, versatile organization responsible for deploying Canadian Forces personnel in support of the defence and protection of Canada in a continental context. To that end, Canada Command also provides a supporting role, providing critical assets and unique capabilities, when required, to other federal departments who may have the lead in a particular safety/security event, such as the highly successful RCMP-led security of the Vancouver Olympics.

Prior to 2001, many in the defence and protection sectors had been coming to the realization that public safety was at risk in more insidious ways than could have ­previously been imagined, however, as LGen Semianiw notes, the tragedy of 9/11 “became a galvanizing force that helped drive change much quicker.”

After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was established in the United States, and Canada began to look at its role in continental security much more seriously. As a result, the department of Public Safety was established in Canada. Also, there were clear implications for a need to prepare all uniformed forces to collaborate more often than ever before on national security efforts within our own borders. “There was a view within the Canadian Forces (CF) that there was perhaps a need to create a structure, an organization that could be focused on Canada and North America,” agrees LGen Semianiw.

At around the same time, the Canadian Forces had begun transforming itself into a leaner, more efficient asset that would prove an effective tool of last resort that the government could rely on. “Coincidentally,” notes Semianiw, these events “all came together to propel the establishment of Canada Command, [with a mandate] to assist and work with other government departments.” The new federal approach about dealing with threats and hazards, both internationally and domestically, was for all government departments to “collaborate in the areas of safety, security and defence – to ensure that, by and large, Canadians are safe and secure, from either a threat or hazards point of view.”

Role of Canada Command
“Canada Command is a ‘force employer’ which means that, on any given day, I have no Forces under my command, or I could have all the Forces under my command,” says LGen Semianiw. “The Navy, Army, Air Force and Special Forces are mandated to provide Canada Command with Forces to be able to address threats and events or hazards that evolve or develop in North America. So for example, as was just announced, we’ve had a number of ships fighting the counter drug war down in the Caribbean. Those ships were from the Navy. They are passed to Canada Command under its command to conduct the operation. Once the operation is complete, then I pass those ships and aircraft back to the Navy and back to the Air Force, who then ensure they are ready for any future operations. Canada Command conducts operations, and the Navy, Army, Air Force and Special Forces ensure that their Forces are ready to be given to Canada Command when it’s needed.”

Thus, Canada Command is responsible for coordinating all domestic and continental CF operations, but also deploys CF assets world wide if there could be implications to North America if the CF did not intervene. “Our mission speaks to the approaches that actually lead or come into Canada, so it does demand that we pay close attention to what’s coming to North America and to Canada. In that respect, we have the situational awareness to be prepared, but if something is coming towards North America, we are aware if it’s a threat or if it’s a hazard.

“As the Commander of Canada Command, I have the authority to put under my command, at any time, any capability of the Canadian Forces – or the entire Canadian Forces – if it’s about the safety and security of Canadians.”

The ‘Home’ Game
The home game is the prime focus area of Canada Command. “It is non-discretionary, it is ‘job-one.’ If there was a question of either Canada or away, the short answer would be at home because the home game is the number one priority. The Canada First Defence Strategy speaks to that as well – you have to be successful at home. That’s where I spend most of my time and thinking, both in areas of national security and emergency management – are we ready? What do we need to do? Do we have the necessary resources in place to assist other departments? We’re already looking ahead to the fall of 2011 and considering what could happen across Canada.” 

A Canadian Forces (CF) BV-206 tracked vehicle stands alongside the OPP Command Centre at Wrightmans Corners during a state of emergency which saw hundreds of motorists stranded in along Highway 402. CF members assisted the OPP with air Search and Rescue and patrolling secondary routes by tracked vehicles for people in need of assistance.

Many operations involve one or more of Canada’s other security organizations. And in many cases, these joint efforts are mandated to be unobtrusive... the general public may be somewhat oblivious to the myriad procedures and protocols being prosecuted on their behalf – witness the Vancouver Olympics, which required ­thousands of hours of preparation and behind the scenes, 24/7 ­situational awareness. The participants and attendees were, for the most part, unaware of the in-depth security measures at the ready for their ­protection, if called for.

It must be mentioned that Canada Command simultaneously monitors situations concerning both national security and emergency management.

Speaking to the emergency management piece, LGen Semianiw references “a great article in FrontLine that talked of Canada Command not too long ago.” The article, he recalls, explains how Canada Command is “inextricably linked with other government departments, led and coordinated by Public Safety Canada (which is the lead federal government department and minister) when any events, hazards, or threats evolve across Canada and across North America, to provide [the] guidance to move ahead on. So, we come together as a community with Public Safety Canada – a number of players around the table, the RCMP, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Coast Guard, the Canada Border Service Agency, Transport Canada, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency (which was also established after 9/11), and others” – all the federal players are working together, he says.

How does Canada Command assist in Public Safety’s mandate to coordinate activities of the federal government dealing with issues of national security and of emergency management? LGen Semianiw says the answer is “expressed in how we do our business.” He is currently a co-chair of the federal Assistant Deputy Minister Emergency Management Committee (ADM EMC) with the Department of Public Safety, which meets approximately every month to look at issues such as natural disasters (wildfires, floods and other devastating environmental events); pandemics; or the logistics and ­lessons learned from exercising in a cross-jurisdictional, multi-agency emergency – “moving towards a common purpose in what we’re trying to achieve.” The role of Public Safety “is to help coordinate us, to bring us together” to ensure that the most effective response is ready when needed. 

Engineers from 4 Engineer Support Regiment, in Gagetown, NB and 56 Engineer Sqn, from St. John’s NL, guide a panel into place on an ACROW bridge to reconnect the small community of Trouty after the main bridge was destroyed in Hurricane Igor.

“A lot of [Canada Command’s] business is in the crisis area, so we work with many other federal departments and the provinces and municipalities to be able to achieve what the Government of Canada asks,” he says. In a recent example, when the SunSea migrant ship tried to sneak its human cargo into Canada, response was swift. The “Canadian Forces, Canada Border Services, RCMP and Coast Guard all came together, with Public Safety as the lead coordinating agency, which put that whole operation into play to see it through.”

When a ship approaches Canada illegally, “the question becomes one of jurisdiction – who is responsible from a Govern­ment of Canada point of view.” Once the SunSea hit Canadian soil, he says, the Canada Border Services Agency was responsible. As the ship was brought into port, “CBSA coordinated with Canada Command to get individuals off the ship and into a screening area.” The two groups also work together along the Canada/U.S. border, such as in when there is a need to quickly move assets and capabilities across the border in the event of a hazard or other emergency.

Lift, air or sea, would be good examples of such a requirement. “In that case,” he says, “we work with Transport Canada to get the necessary passage.” In this way, the commander of Canada Command sees his role as providing government with “a military capability that could be used by others, because there is a driving force in all of this, as all federal departments come together, that we know what we have from a capability point of view – we take a look the issue or event, and we figure out what we need from that capability matrix to be able to solve that issue.”

The Canadian Forces is “a force of last resort, by legislation and regulation,” Semianiw explains, therefore, when a situation calls for federal law enforcement – “that’s clearly an RCMP kind of lead. We could be supporting the RCMP, we could provide air lift, for getting enforcement capability into a particular location, and I think you are going to see more of that in the future because in these times, where you don’t want to see duplication of ­capability, departments need to work together and share, so we have these two committees (Emergency Management and National Security Operations) where we sit down and discuss long term contingency plans, and if there is a crisis we quickly come together and use the committees to be able to bring together a coherent response.”

Does response time suffer from having all these different groups involved? “No it doesn’t,” asserts Semianiw. “There are a number of guiding documents, one of which is the National Federal Emergency Response Plan which lays out in broad terms the approach to be taken, and provides guidance to all federal departments.” Does this work as well in practice as it does in theory? “We already have the relationships established,” notes Semianiw, “so I can pick up the phone and we talk to each other every other week. I think this is a central piece – connecting individuals who have the authority in each of the departments so they can make decisions on the spot, because there is no one government department that has all the capabilities or all the authorities, therefore we need to get people together who have [the authority to] commit.”

A recent example of coordinated crisis response was the snowstorm that shut down parts of Highway 402 in December 2010. Hundreds of people were stranded and at risk of freezing, and “that’s where both Public Safety and ourselves, working with the Province and the OPP came together within hours to be able to get Canadian military support, search and rescue technicians as well as other support on the ground […] quickly.”

 Working with the many government departments has “actually worked out well. If you look at the hurricane in Newfoundland and Labrador recently, [the CF] was ready to support, through Public Safety, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in their time of need.”

Canada Command tracks extreme weather threats such as hurricanes and typhoons headed towards Canada. Also on the “radar” are any other significant threats, such as pandemics or events which could lead to violence, to determine if there will be any impact on Canada or North America. For example, another severe snow storm was projected for Ontario in early 2011, and “we moved a couple of aircraft to a location closer to the potential problem area to ensure that it could be used as quickly as possible if needed. It’s also about knowing what’s going on, doing some ­forward thinking about what could be asked for, to ensure that equipment capability is prepositioned so it can respond in a timely manner when Canadians need it.”

The North
The North is the second of four main focus areas for Canada Command. “Canada’s Northern Strategy speaks to four pillars, but the first one, which everyone is extremely focused on, is sovereignty in the north, and we’re there because northerners want us there. It is through invitation that we come up – we work with the local governments and the territories. For instance, the Mayor of Resolute has asked the Canadian Forces to conduct Operation Nanook 2011 in ­the Resolute area next summer.”

Headquartered in Yellowknife, Canada Command’s Joint Task Force North (JTFN) also has detachments in Iqaluit and Whitehorse. The JTFN commander “ensures that he’s connected to the territories and other  organizations in the North” to make sure he has a complete operating picture.

The third focus area is on partnerships with the United States, with a special emphasis on the tri-command component “which speaks to that continental relationship – working together with NORAD and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), with which there is a formal relationship. The Commander of NORTHCOM, Admiral Winnefeld, my counterpart in the United States, is also the Commander of NORAD, and we [and our staffs] meet on a regular basis. We work on initiatives together to get some sense of how we might deal with [common] issues.”

The forth and last focus area is on our ­relationship with Mexico. “As the Prime Minister has said, we want to be working with Mexico because we all share the same issues and challenges. We want to work with Mexico, alongside Canada’s other ­federal departments and agencies such as Public Safety Canada and the RCMP, to put together a program to bring strategic effect for Canadians and for the Government.

“Mexico’s challenges are our challenges. As you drill down, you’ll see they are connected to what is going on in rest of North America. For instance, if one looks at the situation with the trans-national criminal organizations, there are connections into Canada. So they’re not just Mexico’s issues, they’re our issues and those of the United States. We all have to work together to address them.”

The Canadian Forces is currently undergoing a transformation review, and LGen Semianiw acknowledges he is being briefed on a regular basis. “When I look at what Canada Command has achieved in the last five years, and continues to achieve, I think most would agree that what we do on a day-to-day basis would still have to be done in the future.” The Chief of Defence Staff spoke to this in his quarterly situation report, where he said “in the wake of Hurricane Igor, 2010 was a year that demonstrated the strategic effect of Canada Command. Under strategic leadership, our Joint Task Forces gave us the structure, agility, and responsiveness to move out quickly whenever Canadians needed our support.” The challenge will be, as part of transformation, to ensure that this is safeguarded.

Will the transformation review affect numbers of CF personnel? “As the ­Commander of Canada Command I can tell you that from a Navy, Army, Air Force and Special Forces perspective I have, and get, all the capability I need to do what I need to do and there has never been a case where we’re unable to achieve what we’ve been asked to do from a Forces point of view, so I think the Forces are going to ­continue to build as part of the Canada First Defence Strategy. We’ve got more equipment – the C17s and new Hercules aircraft provide mobility, and from a Navy point of view, we’re looking at shipbuilding, I think it’s only going to get better for what I need to accomplish.”

And Canada has a significant need for a strong Reserve Force. “Take a look at the hurricane in Newfoundland and Labrador,” suggests Semianiw. “A good part of that [response] was executed and accomplished by the Reserves from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Whole of Govt Protection
As FrontLine recognized, when it felt forced to separate its magazine content into the various sectors, the commander of Canada Command also acknowledges that the various departments and agencies tasked with protecting Canadian citizens “may have all been on the same highway, [but it was] broken down into three lanes – safety, security and defence. Those lanes had solid lines that you couldn’t cross or pass for various reasons, whether it be ­legislative or regulatory. Some of that has changed to where it is today, given a number of drivers. There are more dotted lines. We see the military providing more ­support to other ­government departments in a number of different areas and coming together in a whole-of-government approach – not only at home but abroad – so those three concepts are no longer stove pipes, they are more inextricably linked, there is more grey. To be able to succeed in this world, it’s all about relationships; and relationships with other departments and agencies ensures that we know each other, understand each other, talk to each other. 

Crew from HMCS Athabaskan prepare for Operation Unison, the Canadian contribution to the relief efforts along the American gulf coast following Hurricane Katrina.

“Some would say we have different cultures, but those differences are strengths. My view is that we see the world from where we sit, but we also see our solutions from where we sit. It’s better to have many people around the table with different views, different cultural approaches. I’ve found that approach will ensure you find much better solutions that are more enduring, longer lasting, more powerful, and what I call more strategic.” 

Operation Unify: PO2 Riza Caparros and PO3 Kenneth Hendrix, from Naval Station ­Norfolk, chat with SAR Tech Sgt Norm Penny, in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav.

The result of this approach is that LGen Semianiw believes the most effective solution to any major threat will be “to solve it with all my federal partners and with the provinces and with the municipalities, as that ensures the most powerful and longest lasting effect.” To illustrate this, he cites an example in which the CF arrives to handle a ­situation – the immediate mission will be accomplished, but “if a long-term, lasting solution is the goal, you need to bring all the partners in.” The various public safety players are working at understanding each others’ differences and capabilities so they can create lasting success stories.

The Assistant Deputy Ministers’ Emergency Management Committee (ADM EMC) meeting was recently hosted at Canada Command headquarters. “Over 30 federal departments, agencies and organizations participate in ADM EMC, which speaks to the value of the committee” and possibly attests to the new paradigm where, increasingly, civilians are becoming more comfortable interacting with the military.

Semianiw agrees, “folks around town realize that Canada’s military is here to work with them as a federal partner, to be able to solve any crisis or issues or events that arise. I think there’s a new way to operate, and you see that both north and south of the border.”

A unique example of these major cultural shifts was shown when a U.S. aircraft carrier helped out a cruise ship that had lost power in the Pacific, off the coast of Mexico; “it says to me, we are all in this together, we all need to come to the table. We can’t forget that the military is a force of last resort. It needs to be able to apply lethal force when necessary – that is what we are here to do, to be able to fight if needed. That’s what it’s all about, and what Canadians want us to do – but the home game becomes non-­discretionary, no fail, which is why, on Highway 402 we sent search and rescue technicians and Joint Task Force Central down to help stranded Canadians. Why? Because their lives were in danger.”

Wrap up
“It’s not about what you do, it’s about who you do it for,” says LGen Semianiw. “The men and women in the CF have an immense sense of pride in what they do each and every day because they are helping Canadians – and that pride comes back from Canadians when they see us.”

Canada Command has been quietly developing its footprint and increasing its effect without a lot of media exposure. “I think that’s fair,” responds Semianiw,  “most people are focused on listening and watching the story in Afghanistan, not the home story, because in the end, as I’m sure you’ve seen, the home story has always been a success, and the Canadian Forces has always been there when needed. During the Olympics, the G8 or G20 Summits, the migrant ship activities on the west coast, the hurricane in Newfoundland and Labrador, and numerous other operations, Canada Command has always been there to do its job quietly, professionally – you’re right, without a lot of public attention. But in the end, it’s always been successful.”
© Frontline Defence 2011