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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 October, 2004, 06:37 GMT 07:37 UK
Canada faces tough questions over sailor's death

By Lee Carter
In Toronto

Canada's famous maple leaf flag has been flying at half-mast as a shocked nation mourns the death of Lt Chris Saunders.

The combat systems engineer died in hospital on Wednesday shortly after being airlifted from the Canadian submarine, HMCS Chicoutimi.

Canadian sailor
The Chicoutimi tragedy has focused attention on the Canadian navy
A serious fire aboard the submarine destroyed electrical cables and left nine of the 57 crew suffering from smoke inhalation.

A military investigation has begun, and will report to the Canadian parliament.

The Chicoutimi was one of four submarines that Canada has bought from the UK.

It had barely begun its maiden voyage from Scotland to Nova Scotia when the fire broke out.

The submarines had been mothballed by Britain in 1994, but were then subsequently completely refitted for the needs of Canada's navy.

Risk is what we deal with in the Canadian forces and this does not in any way diminish the value of the submarines
Gen Ray Henault
Canadian chief of defence staff

Because of a long list of well-publicised problems encountered in the refitting process - including leaks, dents, corrosion and diving restrictions - it is three years behind its original schedule.

It has also substantially exceeded its original budget.

One example of damage, highlighted at the time by the Canadian media, was a dent the size of a pizza found by the Canadian navy on the hull of one of the vessels.

This damage resulted in the sub being sent back to the UK for further repairs.

Military in spotlight

It is not the first time the Canadian military has had to deal with ageing, potentially dangerous equipment.

Only this year, the governing Liberals finally decided to replace a fleet of creaking Sea King helicopters, which had gained an unenviable reputation of crashing upon take-off and have been described in military circles as "a series of bolts flying in formation".

Lt Chris Saunders' home
Curtains are drawn at Lt Chris Saunders' home in Halifax, Canada
Despite the fire aboard the Chicoutimi and the litany of defects found on the other British-built submarines, Canadian politicians and senior military officials have been robustly defending the decision to purchase the second-hand vessels.

"The navy feels very, very strongly that these subs are what they need and what they want," Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin told reporters on Thursday.

"While there have been problems, these are not unusual in this kind of a system." he said.

Addressing parliament, Canadian Defence Minister Bill Graham acknowledged the problematic history of the four submarines, but said he has confidence that the risks are minimal.

"These are risks that have been in the normal process of bringing these ships up to speed," he said, during sustained questioning from opposition party critics.

"I want to assure the members of the house that these ships are being properly run in by our naval professionals and they are our going to be of great service to our navy," Mr Graham added.

Canadian military officials have stopped commenting on the fire pending the outcome of the investigation.

But on Wednesday, the day of the fire, chief of defence staff Gen Ray Henault defended the acquisition of the British submarines.

"This fire is something that can occur on any submarine, indeed on any vessel, aircraft and vehicle that we have," he told a news conference.

"Risk is what we deal with in the Canadian forces and this does not in any way diminish the value of the submarines."

'Huge embarrassment'

Gen Henault's response does not impress some military analysts, including Scott Taylor, the editor of Esprit de Corps, a respected independent magazine covering Canada's armed forces.

Crew members from HMS Marlborough and HMS Montrose. Picture courtesy of Royal Navy
Royal Navy crew members prepare to tow the Chicoutimi

"How can a general say that?" he asks.

"He doesn't know what caused the fire. This may be something systematic to all four submarines and may require greater examination of these vessels before they can become operational.

"We don't know. For a general to say that indicates that the top brass are keen not to lay any blame on the programme itself."

Mr Taylor says the answer is an independent enquiry, possibly by the military's own ombudsman.

In the meantime, he believes that an internally conducted inquest will not lead to any meaningful results.

He also criticises the country's politicians for exerting political pressure on the military to accept the submarines.

"This is a huge embarrassment for us, no matter what anyone is going to say about this.

"Anytime a submarine has got to resurface, send out a distress signal and be rescued by another navy, let alone losing a sailor, it does not speak well for us."

As Mr Martin prepares to attend the funeral for Lt Chris Saunders some critics, particularly from opposition parties, have felt that this is not the time to raise the many questions dangling over this incident.

But even amongst normally loyal military families, there are growing, grumbling demands for forthright answers.

When that debate comes to a head, as it is expected to do, the fallout may not just have an impact on one controversial submarine programme, but the whole future of what has become generally accepted as a woefully neglected and underfunded military.

A salvage vessel attempts to tow the stricken sub

Canada defends submarine fleet
07 Oct 04  |  Americas
Crewman dies after submarine fire
07 Oct 04  |  Scotland
Rescue ship reaches sub crew
07 Oct 04  |  Scotland

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