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History of icebreaking in Canada

Learn about the history of icebreaking in Canada, including early foundations, and services on the East Coast, Prince Edward Island, St. Lawrence River Valley and Arctic region.

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Great Lakes

In 1842, a commercially owned passenger steamer called the Chief Justice Robinson was built in Niagara. It was the first Great Lakes vessel designed for icebreaking.

From 1906 in the Great Lakes, and possibly before, icebreaking requests were dealt with by local chartered tug boats. They managed the clearing of harbour approaches and channels.

East Coast

In 1855, Canada decided to provide support services to shipping off the east coast.

During the fall and spring, they used the Queen Victoria and the Napoleon III to tow sailing ships between the ice floes for salvage work and supplying lighthouses.

For 4 years, Canada funded these ships, and paid private contractors to operate them. However, this structure failed, and Canada took over the ships in 1859.

Prince Edward Island

Canada has provided icebreaking services off Prince Edward Island since 1873.

The first vessel employed off the coast of Prince Edward Island was the Northern Light. The Stanley and Minto, more capable icebreakers, followed. This ensured the area had a communication link with the rest of Canada during a vital period in Canada's history.

St. Lawrence River

While we were developing the icebreaker service in Prince Edward Island, we were making similar developments in the St. Lawrence River between Québec and Montréal. In this area, annual winter flooding made commercial development difficult.

Ice barriers, or dams, that formed in the narrow points of the river caused flooding. To decrease this flooding, we designed ships to break up the ice at strategic locations in the river and keep the ice moving down the deepest channels. In 1904, we ordered the icebreakers Champlain and Montcalm from Scotland. They performed this role effectively for many years.

An added benefit of the flood control activities was the ability of the river to be open for winter navigation. Other than a few exceptional days during abnormally severe weather conditions, the river has been kept open year-round as far as Montréal since the late 1950s.

This extension of the navigation season to Montréal increased the demand for icebreaker services throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its ports. Icebreaking became more important in support of safety of shipping and increased the ability of Canada to trade with other maritime nations during the winter season.

Arctic region

In the 1920s we established regular Arctic patrols during the short summer navigation season due to:

  • exploration of the Arctic, which peaked in the late 1890s
  • the purchase of the CGS Arctic from the German government in 1904

We initiated patrols to respond to a number of needs, including:

  • re-supplying isolated outposts
  • providing services to native settlements
  • backing up Canada's claims to sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago

During the 1930s the port of Churchill opened for grain export shipment through Hudson Bay. We provide them with icebreaker services at the beginning and end of each season.

At the beginning of the 1950s we built the first of the modern icebreakers to improve access to the north and supply defense sites and northern communities. This was partially due to the ‘cold war’ tensions at the time.

In 1957, we took over the annual resupply of Distant Early Warning Line sites spread across the Arctic. This added another dimension to the growing need for icebreaker services.

More recently, the extraction of raw materials, such as ores, crude oil and natural gas, has caused increased commercial activity throughout Canadian Arctic waters. This created more demand for icebreakers capable of northern operations.

Modern icebreaking

Since confederation, demand for icebreakers across Canada has steadily increased. As a result, our icebreaking services have evolved and developed to meet that demand.

What started as icebreaking ‘between the ice’ has gradually increased to include navigating during the entire ice season and aiding Arctic sovereignty.

Now, icebreaking services have shifted from mainly a safety and communications based activity. It now includes activities that directly support Canada’s economy by extending the navigation season for continued maritime trade.

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