A Civilian at Sea – Experiencing the Arctic with the RCN

I recently had the honour of being invited to participate in the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) Canadian Leaders at Sea program. This program is designed to help Canadian civilian leaders gain a greater appreciation for life at sea and all that the RCN does to serve and protect our country. As the daughter of military parents, with both an uncle and grandfather who were in the Navy and a father who served as petty officer on a Navy ship, this was not only a rare opportunity for a civilian but one that was near and dear to my heart. The fact that I had the opportunity to experience this program in the Artic made me feel that much luckier.

On August 17th, I boarded the plane to Iqaluit and then to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, a small community at the northern tip of Baffin Island. Given a last minute scheduling change that resulted in a lack of accommodation, the RCMP were kind enough to let us use one of their houses for a couple of nights while we waited for the HMCS Ville de Quebec to arrive. I was on site safe and sound, had a place to stay, but one thing was missing – my luggage! And while my stress level was on the rise wondering how I was going to stay warm on a ship in the Arctic without my clothes, I was well taken care of until I was finally reunited with my luggage.

I was terribly mistaken when assuming I would be sitting idle for two days while waiting for the ship to arrive. Our Navy hosts had organized a full ground tour for us to experience Pond Inlet before boarding the ship. We met with the municipality, the park ranger, the RCMP, dined at the Sauniq Hotel and had the opportunity to watch a local cultural show. One of the highlights for me was meeting a group of young people that are part of a group called Ikaarvik – which means “bridge” in Inuktitut. This group is committed to leveraging both Inuit Knowledge and science to solve local challenges in their community. It was a true inspiration to learn more about their ideas and their demonstrated commitment.While I have heard of the challenges of living in the North, you don’t quite appreciate their impact until you experience it first-hand. I was lucky to be there in 24 hours of daylight, and I can only imagine what life is like in 24 hours of darkness. The challenges of food security and high infrastructure costs, accessibility to good education and medical care as well as the impact of climate change on day to day living are all a part of reality in this part of the country.Increased traffic from cruise ships and leisure craft as well as other commercial activity present opportunities that also come with challenges for communities like Pond Inlet. With growing activity by several foreign nations along our borders, this reinforces the important role played by both the RCN and the Canadian Coast Guard. I got just a glimpse into life in Pond Inlet but was touched by the sense of community, shared struggles and connection to place.

On August 19th, we boarded the ship. There were nine of us participating in class #4 and two of us were women. We were taken to our room. There were a couple of personnel already asleep, so we worked very hard to stay quiet and get our stuff into our lockers. There were three bunk beds on either side, and we were assigned the middle bunks. I will say it has been a long time since I was in a bunk bed and don’t believe I mastered the art of getting in and out by the end of my five days – I likely banged just about every part of my body on the top, bottom or sides at some point. I admire all those aboard the ship that are able to make it their home – I spoke to several who had been at sea over 200 days a year on average for over a decade. This takes a toll on family life and the commanding officer and leadership team work hard to create a sense of family on the ship. It is certainly a lifestyle that is not for everyone but all I spoke to were very proud to serve.
For the next five days, we experienced life aboard the ship. We were treated to a royal tour of the ship’s activities. The group was lucky to be able to spend so much time on the bridge where the commanding officer and crew were extremely accommodating in explaining the purpose of the tasks they were performing and reminding us of little things like closing the doors behind us so they did not slam back and hit anyone. We fired guns (ensuring we avoided whales and other wildlife), tried the scuba gear (which weighed over 80 lbs.), and avoided getting lost in the smoke room in full firefighting gear through the use of an infrared scanner. The crew explained how they board other ships, the engineering room, the operations room, the sick bay and many other areas. I even participated in Tai chi and one physical training session on the back of the ship – there was no need to embarrass myself a second time but certainly a unique experience to be jogging on the flight deck of a warship looking at icebergs on both sides.We were very well fed. The galley staff ensure a steady flow of good food: breakfast, soup, lunch and dinner. Our menu included ribs, steak, chicken cordon bleu, poutine, fish, salad, shepherd’s pie and many other dishes that would satisfy even the heartiest of appetites. I will admit that I did not always choose them, but there were healthier options for every meal.

We also had several presentations on the future of the Navy fleet, the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, the various roles the Navy plays at home and abroad, the challenges in the North, and the need to both innovate and focus on recruiting differently for a new generation. One of the highlights for me was a fireside chat with a few of the women onboard. Kudos to the Navy as we heard stories of opportunity and amazing experiences despite women representing only 13 per cent of those on the ship. The commanding officer has clearly created a supportive environment where many feel they can excel. There were few stories of challenges although it is clear that some bias still exists in the Navy overall, not unlike elsewhere that can impede a woman’s ability to reach her maximum potential.If you can adapt to the lifestyle, the Navy provides unique opportunities for individuals and they train you with amazing skills while traveling around the world. I was perhaps most amazed by those that had chosen the Navy as a second career. An opportunity to develop themselves in a way that their first career perhaps did not.

We spent most of our time at sea and we were blessed with very calm seas. Our experience of significant movement of the ship was only when it was performing exercises, so we were all lucky to avoid motion sickness. We did have the opportunity to stop for a few hours in Nuuk, Greenland, and had both a presentation from a Danish commander on the increased activity and new challenges in the arctic and a small tour – such a large land mass to protect with a small population. We finished our trip in Iqaluit with one final reminder of the challenges and blessings of life in the North before we boarded our planes home.

While Navy life is certainly not for me, I appreciated the opportunity to learn and to experience life at sea and particularly in the North. The dedication and hard work of those aboard RCN ships as our Canadian ambassadors around the world was humbling to see. We have a beautiful country and we need to do all that we can to keep it safe and this includes from environmental threats which are increasing as the Arctic continues to experience higher temperatures – receding glaciers and melting permafrost are of high concern as a result.

This is not an adventure I will soon forget. A huge thank you to the Royal Canadian Navy for the unforgettable experience I had in the Arctic aboard the Ville de Quebec and for all that you do to protect our country.