“Every country has a Navy in their waters. Their own or someone else’s.”
Over two hundred and twenty years ago a 32 gun frigate of the French Navy was commissioned and was the first ship to bear the name Montreal. Destroyed in December of 1793, she was followed by the next Montreal that played an important part in the Great Lakes campaign of the War of 1812 taking part in the storming and capture of the town and fort of Oswego. Among the early class of new escort vessels built at the start of the Second World War was the HMCS Montreal. With a personnel compliment of 140 it saved the crew of a ditched aircraft in her first year of sailing. In September of 1944 she was transferred to a striking force and took part in numerous hunts for submarines.
In that proud tradition this latest HMCS MONTREAL was launched in 1994 and I was privileged to be invited on board in the company of Environment Minister Stephane Dion and Sen. Colin Kenny this past week as it cruised down the St. Lawrence to its name port. Rarely has the contrast between image and reality been driven home with starker relief than during this day.
Capt. Rob Gascoigne (l), Lt. Vic Melanson (2nd from l.), Sen. Colin Kenny (3rd from l.), Commodore René Marin (4th from l.), Environment Minister Stephane Dion (6th from l.), Dr. Janine Krieber of RMC-St.Jean (5th from rt.), Patrick Gagnon, Principal , the Parliamentary Group (4th from rt.), Beryl Wajsman, Institute for Public Affairs(3rd from rt.), Nino Colavecchio, President of the Canadian Italian Congress (2nd from rt.), Capt. Kelly Williams, Director of Maritime Strategy (r.) on board the HMCS Montreal standing in front of a Sea King on the flight deck..
We tend to think of our armed services as a quaint remnant of our past with little relevance to today’s world. Yet this ship, with fifteen of its sister frigates and destroyers, manned by over 4100 sailors, played a critical role in one of the most vital operations of the current conflict. The mission was called Operation Apollo and was Canada’s major contribution to the War on Terror. It took place over the past twenty months in the Persian Gulf. The ability and bravery of Canadian service men and women was lauded by all allies particularly the Americans. Yet few Canadians know any of this happened because politically correct Ottawa chooses to downplay it.
We learned other startling news during this special day. During the first Gulf War the HMCS Winnipeg, then commanded by our remarkable host of last week Capt. Kelly Williams, Director of Maritime Strategy, led an allied task force that including an American carrier fleet. And such joint command missions were repeated during the past several years. Canadian operational capability is at international command standards. Yet our Navy faces a budgetary shortfall in this year alone of $150 million just on committed missions because of a lack of political will to re-order national priorities.
We met many fine and courageous pilots who man our air assets. Perhaps none was as impressive as Capt. Rob Gascoigne who flies Sea Kings. I could not resist prodding him as to what the attitude was among his colleagues when they have to get into one. Though he answered with the customary military bravado that comes with some twelve years of service, it was clear that some of the younger pilots had trepidation. The very Sea King on the ship, the one in the accompanying picture, was grounded because of a hydraulic leak and could be moved only when the Montreal got back to Halifax because the facilities did not exist in its name port.
Not only has the decision on new helicopters been waffled on for over ten years, we do not even give enough of a budget for repair and infrastructure to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform. Yet this has not lessened their ingenuity. Our Navy developed the “Bear-Trap” Landing System for getting helicopters safely onto flight decks of non-carrier class ships. It’s the state-of-the-art in the world. The communications system used by our Navy is the envy of many NATO countries. It allows calls to be made from a compact console to anywhere on the ship or to anywhere in the world at the touch of a button. And it operates with multiple inter-face capability.
Our ships deploy the most sophisticated radar, including the anti-missile SHIELD II Decoy system and the Sea Giraffe surface search, as well as conventional radar and submarine-tracking sonar including the highly regarded CANTASS (Canadian Towed Array Sonar) integrated with American systems. Canada’s warships are equipped with some of the most advanced offensive and defensive weapons available from Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles to Bofors guns, the Phalanx system that detects, tracks and engages targets firing 4500 rounds per minute and MK46 torpedoes. Our Zodiac portable transports are the finest fixed-hull light boats in the world and are regularly used in rescue missions.
Sadly, the timidity of our political leadership has rarely allowed Canada’s expertise to be either flaunted or properly exploited.
When reflecting upon the quality of the men and women we met the term the “…best and the brightest…” comes quickly to mind. Not in any pejorative sense. But in the truest sense. These are Canada’s elite because they have committed themselves to the twin principles of service to, and sacrifice for, our country. Our responsibility is to make sure that our political leadership gives them the tools to do the job. Not just to show our flag, but to carry our share of responsibility in this global village.
Our servicemen and women have been beacons of freedom for people struggling against oppression from Haiti to Afghanistan. All those many lands from where Canada, as an industrialized nation, derives so much benefit in everything from cheap labour to cheap resources. Is it not simple decency to at least bring hope to their peoples in time of peril?
And as we sailed into port and saw the many people waving and cheering; as we watched some of the faces of more than 5,000 visitors to the ship over the following two days in port ; as we recalled Sen. Kenny's words that this had been a "once in a lifetime" experience, we were struck by the thought that perhaps, in this evermore dangerous world, that hope could be a source for the redemption of our national political purpose and the spark for the restoration of our nation’s pride.