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Eye On Defence: The Mysteries Around HMCS Chicoutimi



HMCS Chicoutimi is helped to the jetty by two Royal Navy tug boats in Faslane, Scotland. It is the last of four submarines purchased by the Canadian Forces from the British Ministry of Defence.

This column is being written just three weeks after the fire aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Chicoutimi and the death of Lieutenant (Navy) Chris Saunders. The naval board of inquiry is in full swing. It will largely concern itself with technical matters such as whether or not the crew were adequately prepared for emergencies or whether the fire started at point A as opposed to point B and how and why it spread.

Even though the navy’s final report will not, in all likelihood, be completed before the end of 2004, the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs (SCONDVA) has also launched a public inquiry into the fire. SCONDVA’s approach will be much more sweeping; it will not only look at the circumstances surrounding the accident, but it will delve into the basic questions of why Canada even has a fleet of submarines and why this particular fleet of used British Upholder-class submarines was purchased in the first place.

Ordinarily an accident at sea, even one which causes a casualty, would not receive such high-level attention. But this particular accident happened during a period of minority government, a period which also coincides with the slow dawning of understanding on the part of a growing number of Canadians that all is not right with the Canadian military.

How else to explain the extraordinary outpouring of official government sympathy—with both the prime minister and the Governor General at dockside in Halifax—upon the arrival of Lieut. Saunders’ body? In the past 18 months, two Canadian fighter pilots have been killed on active service and in neither case did their deaths bring such official government-generated grief.

Although at this stage not even a corner of a page has been turned in the larger inquiry being conducted by SCONDVA, some very disturbing facts have already been uncovered.

For example, on Oct. 24, 2004, Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) Alan Williams and Captain (Navy) M.F. Williamson appeared before SCONDVA and dropped the bombshell that the original agreement negotiated with Britain in 1998 did not involve the barter of Canadian training facilities, most especially the British Army Training Centre at Canadian Forces Base Suffield, for the four Upholder submarines.

Virtually everyone connected to the defence establishment—in National Defence Headquarters, in the press, even longtime members of SCONDVA—had long believed just that. But no, Williams assured the committee “the barter’s actually [been] misconstrued…the fact is that’s never happened.”

In other words, back in 1998, when the Department of National Defence told Canadians they were paying virtually nothing for the subs because of the barter arrangement, they were being less than truthful.

Another fact that seems to have astonished the members of SCONDVA is that it should have taken fully five years, from 1993 to 1998, to gather the required technical information on the mothballed subs before the government was able to generate a purchase order. Procurements such as this are very complicated, SCONDVA was told, and it does sometimes take “four to five years” to get the bid right.

SCONDVA members and the general public need a bit of a refresher on that claim. The main reason why the Upholder subs spent five extra years in mothballs—or “alongside” in naval parlance—was that the government could not make up its mind if, in fact, it even wanted to stay in the submarine game after the end of the Cold War. The final decision to go ahead was as much due to the enormous pressure placed on it by the British and the Americans as anything else, but only after prolonged foot dragging. It is simply disingenuous to claim otherwise.

There is more historical revisionism in the claim the navy is now making that there was really nothing wrong with its old Oberon-class submarines anyway, but that the Upholders were such a hot deal, they could not pass them up. Anyone who remembers the major public relations campaign that the navy mounted in the early 1990s to the effect that the then 30-year-old Oberons were on the verge of falling apart might be greatly surprised by this news. And indeed, the Oberons, representing 1950s technology, were about as appropriate for the ‘90s, let alone the new century, as Second World War U-boats might have been.

Yet there it is, in cold hard type, from Alan Williams: “We knew, in fact, the Oberon class met our needs.” But then along came an opportunity to buy new boats at roughly 25 cents on the dollar! What a deal! Couldn’t pass it up!

Nor did the navy do any comparison shopping. Despite the fact that there were German, Dutch and Australian subs available which were and are about the same size and capability as the Upholders—and of course newer—it turns out that no point-by-point comparison of those types with the Upholders was ever made.

The implications of this very early testimony before SCONDVA are disturbing: the real financial arrangements were hidden; government delays had no impact on the time it took for Canada to make the purchase offer; the navy’s claim in the early 1990s that the Oberons had to be replaced because they were at the end of their useful life is now being revised; no comparison shopping was done.

At bottom, since there was not a chance in the world that the government might shell out some $800 million apiece for new subs, the navy wanted to grab the Upholders because they had been constructed by the same British shipyards that had built the Oberons.

In a democracy, the defence establishment’s most important asset is transparency. If it turns out that the Department of National Defence’s credibility becomes the second greatest casualty of the Chicoutimi fire (after the death of Saunders), much more than Canada’s sub fleet may eventually be at stake.


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