The establishment of the CCG
By Lea Edgar, Librarian & Archivist, Vancouver Maritime Museum
The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) has a dynamic history. Although not officially established until 1962, the CCG can actually trace its roots back to 1868. It was through the insistence of the Canadian public that the organization was finally recognized as an essential service to protect Canadians and Canada’s coastline. Since then, the organization has continuously embraced a massive list of responsibilities.
Canada has the longest coastline in the world, covering a massive 243,042 km and touching three oceans. Safety at sea has always been of prime importance to Canadians. With the creation of the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1868, the first organization with the duties we now associate with the Coast Guard was established. Some of those duties included pilotage; lighthouses, beacons and buoys; investigating ship wrecks; establishing marine hospitals; and general matters regarding navigation in Canada.
s far as British Columbia is concerned, when the province joined Confederation in 1871, there were minimal navigational aids. Among the few noted were Fisgard and Race Rocks on Vancouver Island and a light ship was established at the mouth of the Fraser River. There was also the steamer, Sir James Douglas, which was built in 1864 to attend to the dredgers in Victoria harbour and service lights and subsequently became the first light station and buoy tender on the West Coast. With the development of wireless telegraphy, the Department of Marine and Fisheries built seven telegraph stations on the West Coast. However, responsibility for radio communication was transferred to the Naval Service of Canada in 1910. After the First World War, with the acknowledgement of radio as an aid to navigation, responsibility was transferred back to the Department of Marine and Fisheries. By 1936, the department evolved into the Department of Transport (DOT), losing its fisheries responsibility.
After the Second World War, the public demanded a national Coast Guard, primarily for search and rescue efforts. Many admired the United States Coast Guard and its rescue of Canadian vessels, sometimes even in Canadian waters. The White Ensign Club in Halifax first proposed the creation of the Canadian Coast Guard in 1944. The proposal stated: “To effect the complete and satisfactory rehabilitation after the war of personnel serving at sea, that a Canadian Government Coast Guard Service be established to carry out the pre-war functions of the RCMP Marine Services, the Department of Fisheries Protection Service, hydrographic survey, lifesaving and rescue and the DOT buoy and lighthouse service.” The request focused on amalgamating various departments as well as providing work for veterans. However, the Acting Deputy Minister of Transport at the time dismissed the request, claiming work for veterans was already underway and there was no need to amalgamate departments. Regardless, the Cabinet Defence Committee organized a conference to determine the need for a Canadian Coast Guard in 1946. The various government agencies squabbled and disagreed and ultimately recommended against creating a Coast Guard. However, the next 15 years saw continued demand for such a service from the public and businesses along the coasts and Great Lakes.
It was an incident on the West Coast that helped push the government to finally act. On May 1, 1959, the Norwegian freighter, Ferngulf, caught fire off Point Atkinson and called for help. An RCAF helicopter was the first to arrive. The Vancouver fireboat was not able to respond, claiming it was restricted to only the harbour. Luckily, two destroyers, HMCS Saguenay and Assiniboine, as well as the U.S. submarine USS Cavallo, were in port. The three vessels brought the fire under control, however there were still casualties from the incident. The public was appalled and demanded action.
Another impetus for the creation of the Coast Guard was the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, considerably expanding marine trade in Canada. With all the public pressure and dramatic events leading to its creation, the actual act was as simple as an announcement on January 26, 1962, made by the Minister of Transport in the House of Commons. The Honourable Leon Balcer rose and stated that the Department of Transport fleet of ships would now be known as the Canadian Coast Guard. This somewhat anticlimactic event did not bring about immediate change. Instead, the process had already begun as early as 1958 with the hiring of Dr. Gordon Stead as Director General, Marine Services and Assistant Deputy Minister, Marine. He started by establishing a headquarters, appointing administrative officials, forming regions and touring the existing vessels.
In 1962, the Coast Guard Badge was approved by the Queen. The blue and white opposing sides are meant to signify both sea ice and water. The two dolphins represent the vessels of the Coast Guard. To signify that the Canadian Coast Guard is ultimately in the service of the Queen, the badge is topped by the Royal Crown. The motto ‘Saluti Primum, Auxilio Semper’ translates to “Safety First, Service Always.”
With the creation of this new organization, the need for trained employees was a priority. The Canadian Coast Guard college was established on May 5, 1964. The college was first located at Point Edward Naval Base in Sydney, Nova Scotia. In 1981, the present location of the college complex in Westmount was built.
The Canadian Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in 1995 to cut costs. This meant that the Coast Guard now included the DFO science vessels as well as the Fisheries Conservation and Protection vessels. Then, in 2005, the Coast Guard was declared a “special operating agency” of the DFO, effectively gaining more independence.
Today, the Canadian Coast Guard manages 119 vessels and 22 helicopters, along with numerous smaller craft. The organization has many responsibilities to ultimately keep Canadians safe on the water, including but not limited to icebreaking, search and rescue, aids to navigation, ship inspection and standards and marine communication. While the CCG’S official history may not stretch quite as far back as our American neighbour, its heroism and reputation are just as impressive and important to such a large and successful country as ours.