A unique environment that poses very real challenges

By Wendy A. Tadros

(This article was published in the 12 November 2012 issue of the Hill Times.)

Even in a country of such vast and varied geography, Canada's North remains fundamentally different—not just in terms of climate or landscape or population, but of operation.

Roads are scarcer, cities and towns fewer, the distances between them much greater. Goods and services and people tend to move by aircraft—or boat when ice permits. And should something go wrong, the word “remote” can take on deadly meaning.

At the Transportation Safety Board, we've spent more than two decades investigating accidents and then letting Canadians know exactly what we've found. The men and women who work for us are experts in their fields, dedicated to finding out what happened, why, and how it can be prevented from happening again. They also know as well as anyone the very real challenges posed by working in such a unique environment.

They know, for instance, that infrastructure facilities in the North are often more rudimentary. Airports may be only a single gravel strip, and may have a reduced capability when it comes to dealing with crashes or fires. The majority of planes that fly between them are also smaller, many equipped with less sophisticated navigation and warning systems.

It's no surprise, then, that these smaller aircraft—which are commonly used for forestry and survey work, or as air taxis, supply shuttles and MEDEVACS—account for over 90 per cent of Canada's aviation accidents and fatalities.

Mariners, too, face geo-specific problems: as the Arctic melt frees up new shipping lanes, a growing fleet is being reminded that decades-old navigation charts don't always provide sufficient detail. Moreover, with the rise of eco-tourism and an increasing number of cruise ships, the problem will only grow.

That's no hypothetical prediction, either, as a pair of high-profile accidents recently made clear.

In 2010, the passenger vessel Clipper Adventurer ran aground in Coronation Gulf, Nunavut, while on a two-week Arctic cruise. For almost two days, the nearly 200 people on board were effectively marooned until they could be transferred to an icebreaker. And while it was fortunate that no one was injured, the TSB's investigation report noted that less than 10 per cent of the region has been surveyed to modern standards—and that many charts include information obtained over 50 years ago using less reliable technologies than are available today.

Then, in 2011, a Boeing 737 slammed into a hill barely a mile from the airport at Resolute Bay, Nunavut, killing 12 of the 15 people on board. By sheer coincidence, search-and-rescue personnel were only a few kilometers away, thanks to a nearby military training exercise aimed at demonstrating Canada's capabilities in the North.

In both cases, the situation could have been even worse, and the Clipper Adventurer, in particular, stands as a cautionary tale. After all, what if the vessel had taken on water, or even sunk?

None of this is to suggest that the North is unsafe, only that there are risks and we must be aware of them. And for the most part, the people who make their living there know this. Just as they know that caution and prudence become even more important in the North.

At the TSB, we know this, too, which is why we're always pushing for improved safety standards and better equipment. For example, our recent safety Watchlist—a document that highlights the issues posing the greatest risk to Canada's transportation system—calls for improved navigation approach procedures along with a wider use of technology, especially the smaller aircraft that fly to the most remote areas of the country. Moreover, given the potential for increased vessel traffic in the North, the importance of identifying and communicating the associated navigational challenges to crews is vital.

We're not going to let up, either, because the problems aren't going away. As the region's natural resources become increasingly sought after, Canada's North will inevitably open up further. That, in turn, means more people, more transportation, and a need for an even greater emphasis on safety.

Fortunately, that's exactly what we do best.

The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.