Danger and beauty in the Arctic high seas

A chance meeting led to a rare experience in the Arctic high seas for Saint Mary’s professor Trudy Sable.

Dr. Sable, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, former Director of Aboriginal and Northern Research at the GRI and current Community Engaged Research Facilitator at Saint Mary’s, was attending a reception at the US consulate in Halifax this summer when she heard Commander Michael Eelhart, a commanding officer in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), talking about an upcoming expedition to the Arctic.

The topic was the RCN Arctic Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS) program, an initiative that brings civilian leaders from business, academia and other sectors on board naval ships to gain a better understanding of the work of sailors and the navy’s mission, and to provide feedback to the captain.

Sable, who teaches Arctic studies, and has worked with Innu First Nation in Labrador and the University of the Arctic since 2002, was intrigued. “I mentioned I would love to go, and he immediately invited me… which I wasn’t expecting!” she says with a laugh.

The impromptu invite made for some quick preparation, but with support from the Office of the VPAR and the university, Sable was one of 5 civilians who joined the crew of the frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec’s on August 7 for a week-long mission to sail from Nuuk, Greenland to Nanisivik, Nunavut. 

The Arctic has become a national priority in recent years for Canada, gaining international interest due to climate change and access to resources and transport routes, particularly the Northwest Passage. Commercial and military interests have increased, as has the presence of neighbour countries in the Arctic circle. “Our first day in Nuuk we heard a presentation from the Danish commander discussing the increased activity in Arctic waters,” said Sable.  

The voyage was an intense but rewarding learning experience for the civilian team, who were put through their paces and immersed in life at sea. “We were introduced to almost every aspect of the ship’s life, from engine room to the operations room, from the ship’s galley to the bridge” says Sable. “We went to every level of the ship and were encouraged to talk to everyone.”

The team donned firefighters suits and walked through rooms of smoke with infrared cameras, learned to spray firehoses, fired first C-8 rifles on deck, saw how officers board enemy ships, saw who commanded the firing of missiles and firearms, and more.

For Sable, who considers herself a pacifist, the trip was eye-opening on a number of levels.  For instance, understanding the focus the navy as defensive protection and its role in emergency response.

 “We had a number of glorious and dangerous points in our trip,” says Sable of the experience. “An  emergency with flooding (originally thought to be a fire) in the torpedo room right next to our cabin. A dangerous ice field that kept the frigate from entering Nanisivik, Nunavut. And having to be rescued at sea in 4-foot waves when our rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) hit a rock!”

““It was full of juxtapositions… of beauty and danger, camaraderie and challenges. On the one hand you have this huge warship protecting our country, but then there is this incredible vulnerability,” says Sable. “Their professionalism was remarkable, but so was the sense of community they build on the ship, how they relate to the outside world and how they relate to these major circumstances that they are dealing with.”

For Sable though, the most valuable take away was about taking uncomfortable risks and learning from them.

“It’s about putting yourself out there on the edge, where you don’t know what will happen and you have to trust. Rising to the challenge of a new situation, and doing something to gain a better understanding. You don’t have to agree with it, but appreciating what people are doing is valuable.”

Mark Salter, a professor at the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa, was also on the voyage. You can read an article about his experience here: