Canadian Armed Forces

How the Pacific Fleet secures Canada's waters, borders, and business

From forest fires to drug smuggling to zebra mussels: if it threatens domestic security, the Royal Canadian Navy is on the lookout

By Emily Vance
May 5, 2021
Canadian Armed Forces

How the Pacific Fleet secures Canada's waters, borders, and business

From forest fires to drug smuggling to zebra mussels: if it threatens domestic security, the Royal Canadian Navy is on the lookout

By Emily Vance
May 5, 2021
HMCS Winnipeg and HMCS Regina (not pictured) sail past the Greater Victoria Shoreline en route to Hawaii with their embarked Royal Canadian Air Force CH-148 Cyclone helicopters for the Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC) August 6, 2020. Photo credit: MS Dan Bard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, Canadian Forces Photo
Canadian Armed Forces

How the Pacific Fleet secures Canada's waters, borders, and business

From forest fires to drug smuggling to zebra mussels: if it threatens domestic security, the Royal Canadian Navy is on the lookout

By Emily Vance
May 5, 2021
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How the Pacific Fleet secures Canada's waters, borders, and business
HMCS Winnipeg and HMCS Regina (not pictured) sail past the Greater Victoria Shoreline en route to Hawaii with their embarked Royal Canadian Air Force CH-148 Cyclone helicopters for the Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC) August 6, 2020. Photo credit: MS Dan Bard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, Canadian Forces Photo

Capital Daily’s educational series spotlighting Canada’s Navy is supported by Babcock Canada but the stories and journalism are produced independently by Capital Daily. Per our policy, Babcock Canada had no editorial input into this story.

The role of the Canadian Pacific Fleet in domestic security is multifaceted, and it plays out both at home and in international waters through a variety of tactical missions and daily patrols.

Based out of CFB Esquimalt, Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC) refers to the assets and operations of the Royal Canadian Navy on Canada’s Pacific coast. The primary goal of MARPAC is to ensure that the Canadian Pacific Fleet and its personnel are always ready to go, whenever they’re needed.

Rear-Admiral Angus Topshee is the current Commander of MARPAC. He took the helm in May 2021, and the role is the cherry on top of his long naval career. Prior to this, he was the Commander of CFB Halifax.

“My responsibility is to generate forces, primarily naval forces, that would be used overseas or at home in Canada to support operations and advance the interests of Canada. As part of that role as Maritime Forces Pacific, I am responsible for all of the Navy units that are based here,” said Topshee.

It’s no small feat – MARPAC looks after a lot of moving parts, including the entirety of the Canadian Fleet Pacific. That’s made up of five Halifax-class major warships, six Kingston-class minor warships, four Victoria-class submarines, and eight Orca-class patrol and training vessels.

The Halifax-class warships are referred to as the “backbone” of the Royal Canadian Navy, and they’re the ships sent out on international missions. One of those ships, HMCS Calgary, is currently patrolling in the international waters off the Arabian Sea in a counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics capacity under Operation Artemis.

HMCS CALGARY conducts a sailpast of the Victoria, British Columbia shoreline before setting off for Operation ARTEMIS and Operation PROJECTION on 27 February, 2021. Photo: Cpl Lynette Ai Dang, Her Majesty's Canadian Ship CALGARY, Imagery Technician

The Kingston-class warships are primarily used for coastal surveillance and patrol. The Orca-class are training ships, but by virtue of their presence along the coast, they double as patrol vessels.

“In the nature of their operations as they train naval personnel, they have a presence around a lot of the coast. And so they'll go into different bays and places because those little bays are excellent navigation training for our junior officers. And in the course of that, that takes them to most of the coastline,” said Topshee.

Also part of MARPAC is the Naval Tactical Operation Group, the Pacific Fleet Dive Unit, a Naval Personnel and Training Group, and the Fleet Maintenance Facility Cape Breton.

From left to right, Lt(N) Anna Childerhose, SLt Phil Hopkins, and Lt(N) Kateryna Hubbard of Her Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS) WINNIPEG participate in a Replenishment-at-Sea (RAS) with United States Navy Ship (USNS) CHARLES DREW (T-AKE-10 a Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship) in the Asia-Pacific region during Operation NEON on November 16, 2020. Photo: Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

Joint Task Force Pacific

In addition to all that, Topshee wears several other hats. He’s the Commander of Joint Task Force Pacific (JTFP), and is the Search and Rescue Coordinator for Canada’s Pacific coast.

JTFP is the mechanism through which all the moving parts of MARPAC, and other assets of the Canadian Forces, can be deployed to respond to any domestic emergency. Canadian domestic security is a core priority of the Canadian Forces. Through JTFP, commanders at national and regional levels are able to respond quickly and fluidly to any situation that might arise.

When MARPAC units, or naval forces based in Esquimalt are out in the water, they’re keeping an eye on everything going on around them. In simple terms, Topshee describes it as a “block watch” with the power to respond to any crisis or national security threat in the Pacific that could threaten Western Canada, from the southern tip of B.C. up to Alaska.

“If something doesn't look right, we investigate it to try and figure out what's going on. If we see environmental harm or damage, then we report it and see if there's anything we can do to mitigate it,” said Topshee.

Generally, that mitigation involves alerting the relevant agency, whether it’s the RCMP, the Canadian Border Services Agency, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans-Coast Guard or Transport Canada. They also anticipate emergencies and develop contingency plans. Further out in the Pacific, the Navy works with the North American Aerospace Defense Command as part of an alliance with the United States.

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A key part of that domestic inter-agency work is done at the Maritime Security Operations Centre (MSOC). There are three MSOCs, one in Victoria, Halifax, and Niagara on the Great Lakes St. Lawrence seaway. Through MSOC, all the aforementioned federal agencies work together to share intelligence about marine activity. This allows the agencies to coordinate their response in the case of a threat.

Not all the intelligence is able to be shared between departments. For example, the RCMP might not be able to share details on a specific case, but they can ask the other representatives to keep an eye out for a particular boat, or pattern of behaviour.

“We all have an interest in a different piece of the puzzle. So if one of us goes out to look at something, we share that with everybody else to make sure that we're as efficient and effective as possible,” said Topshee.

As for what the Navy is keeping an eye out for, it ranges. It could be anything from intercepting boats smuggling illicit drugs or people, reporting on fuel and oil spills, or even helping control the spread of gypsy moths and zebra mussels.

“We're looking to detect the pattern. The enforcement, again, goes to different agencies,” said Topshee. “Our role in the Navy is just to lend what we gain just by the nature of our routine operations, to make sure that we're enabling other federal agencies in executing their mandate.”

They also work closely with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on marine mammal protection, and are active in the whale reporting network.

“We always want to make sure we are aware of where whales are, because we don't want to harm any of them in the nature of our operations. The easiest way to make sure we're clear of them is to track where they are most of the time,” said Topshee.

Even when they’re not heading into international waters, naval ships spend a significant amount of time out at sea, working and training personnel. They’re deployed all over the Pacific coast. Topshee says one of his favourite things about training is picking a beautiful spot on the coastline to spend time on when they don’t need to be in any specific spot.

“You get to start to explore the beauty of the B.C. coast. And that takes us into a lot of different places. Everywhere we go, we're looking to see what's going on. And if there's something that just doesn't look right, we report it back to one of the federal agencies for them to follow up on,” said Topshee.

Search and Rescue

Provincial Search and Rescue also falls under the command of the Royal Canadian Navy. The Coast Guard at sea, and the Royal Canadian Air Force out of Comox provide the majority of the boots on the ground response, but the coordination comes together out of the Search and Rescue centre in Esquimalt. In rare cases, the Pacific Fleet can also be mobilized, especially if Navy ships are already nearby.

Corporal Jeff Coffee acts as the Deck Director during the landing of the CH-148 Cyclone on board Her Majesty's Canadian Ship (HMCS) WINNIPEG during Operation PROJECTION on 20 November 2020. Photo: Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

Topshee also has the difficult job of calling off a search once it’s unlikely that the person, or people will be found.

“Those are always the difficult discussions. … We want to make sure that they're given due attention and concern, because we know every time we decide to reduce a search, or to call it off, there are people who are going to lose as a result. We want to make sure that we've done everything possible, exhausted every capability, every possibility, before we ever reduce a search,” said Topshee.

Search and Rescue Technicians from 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron discuss their plan of action on the ground as a Cormorant helicopter comes in to land on top of a mountain near Hope, British Columbia on February 27, 2014 during an annual Search and Rescue Exercise. Photo: Bdr Albert Law, 39 Canadian Brigade Group

In extenuating circumstances, the Royal Canadian Navy can also be called in to help with natural disasters like forest fires, floods, and recently, the pandemic response. Though naval members have some training in wildland firefighting, their role in a crisis of that level is more about supporting the provincial response.

“We'd like to think of ourselves as the force of last resort, because B.C. is very, very well equipped for wildfire management. They do a great job through their emergency operations centers. But once you start to see that those provincial resources are exhausted, or close to being exhausted, and we have capacity … we would then provide a reserve of military personnel,” said Topshee.

Members of 39 and 41 Canadian Brigade Groups search the forest near Resky Creek, British Columbia preventing hotspots from reigniting the wildfire that has devastated the region, during Operation LENTUS, September 4, 2017. Photo: Corporal I. Thompson, Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Center

International efforts

Beyond what happens within Canada’s borders and immediate seas, the Royal Canadian Navy’s international efforts also play a role in supporting security at home. The Canadian Fleet Pacific is active in ensuring that sea lanes of trade and commerce remain open. It’s a role that Elinor Sloan, a Carleton professor of International Relations and former defense analyst with the Department of National Defense, says is one of the most crucial aspects of domestic security, as the vast majority of Canada’s trade arrives by water.

“The biggest role [the Navy] plays with respect to Canadian security is its overseas role in helping to secure the sea lines of communication, to ensure that trade goes through, to ensure that our economy and prosperity is not adversely impacted by a conflict situation, or trade lanes being closed by a power,” said Sloan.

“When you look at security, you have to look at the overall defense, but also economic prosperity of its citizens, anything that directly impacts the well being of its citizens. Economics is a huge part of that.”

The Canadian Fleet Pacific also participates in a variety of international operations, including drug-trafficking interdiction and counter-terrorism operations. Some operations support international objectives. HMCS Winnipeg recently returned from Operation Projection, which involved patrolling and naval exercises in the South China Sea. On that same trip, HMCS Winnipeg participated in Operation Neon, which provides ongoing support in enforcing the UN Security Council’s sanctions against North Korea.

“As soon as you start to see illicit pathways across the seas, it's usually not in support of positive things," said Topshee.

This is the third in a six-part series exploring the history of Canada’s Navy from a Victoria perspective. Find part one, about the history of Victoria and the impact of the Canadian Navy on the city, here, and part two, about the local economic impact of the base in Esquimalt, here.

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How the Pacific Fleet secures Canada's waters, borders, and business