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Coast Guard can protect the 
North: Minister 

[PoliticsWatch updated 5:15 p.m. October 17, 2006]

OTTAWA  —  Canada's Coast Guard is quite capable of defending Canada's arctic sovereignty, Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn asserted Tuesday. 
  
Hearn's comments come a week after the Senate defence committee issued a report that criticized the Conservative government's plan to buy three armed icebreakers for the military. 

The committee's report recommended that the new armed icebreakers be given to the Coast Guard, which currently operates Canada's icebreaker fleet. 

"The skills to operate these vessels also rests with the Coast Guard, and to force the Navy to reacquire those skills and purchase a fleet of icebreakers would diminish its capacity to carry out its other military responsibilities," the Senate report concluded.  

Speaking with reporters after appearing before the Commons fisheries committee, Hearn admitted that as Fisheries Minister he was biased in favour of the Coast Guard. 

"We are into an age where sovereignty and uncertainty in security is there," he explained. "Is it something above and beyond what the Coast Guard can do? I personally don't think so

"But that's not a decision for me. That's a decision for government."

Hearn said that despite his government's plans for a greater military role in the arctic, the Coast Guard will continue to have a presence in Canada's North. 

"In fact our presence in the North has been enhanced and we hope to continue to do so," he added. 

While Hearn said the Coast Guard was enhancing its presence in the North, earlier during the committee meeting the commissioner of the Coast Guard, George Da Pont, had to explain to MPs why representation from the North is excluded from a special insider committee currently reviewing federal marine service fees charged by the Coast Guard.   

Da Pont confirmed that the North was not part of the initial meetings and that they are still trying to identify a North representative. 

The Arctic Marine Advisory Committee, an industry group that reports to the Coast Guard on such matters, was not contacted about either the group or the review, confirmed an industry insider to PoliticsWatch.

NDP MP Peter Stoffer introduced a motion calling on the federal government to immediately stop charging marine fees on vessels servicing communities across Nunavut and Nunavik in northern Quebec.  It is expected that the committee will  vote on the motion at its next meeting.   

Hearn, meanwhile, spent a large part of the meeting on the defensive as Stoffer also alleged that recently released spending estimates show the department planned to chop $97.5 million from its budget. 

The minister and his officials adamantly denied that the cuts were permanent and said the $97.5 million figure that Stoffer cited was a result of previous programs that had come to an end.  

Hearn maintained that his department has in fact secured a permanent budget increase of $99 million. 

While Hearn left it to his officials to explain to the committee how the government was not cutting funding, he was later asked point-blank by reporters if he was making cuts. 

"No," he said.  "When the budget comes down you will find there will not be any cuts to our budget." 

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