This Week in History


Breaking the Ice

For the week of Monday July 4, 2016

On July 8, 1954, the Arctic Patrol Vessel HMCS Labrador departed Sorel, Quebec, for the ship’s final acceptance trials at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then for its first voyage to the Arctic. This journey was intended to assert Canada’s Arctic sovereignty during the Cold War.

Map of the route of Labrador's 1954 voyage
© Parks Canada Agency, 1980
In the mid-20th century, the Arctic was still poorly charted and Canada’s claims to its waters were far from secured. Post-Second World War tensions with the Soviet Union were on the rise and a Soviet approach from the Arctic became a real concern. Most security operations in the Arctic were initiatives of the United States, such as the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line across the North. If Canada wanted to retain its sovereignty in the region, it would have to increase its Arctic presence.

Labrador was launched in 1951 and named the following year. The Canadian-made ship was modelled after the American Navy’s wind-class icebreakers, but altered to double as a research vessel. For six years, Labrador was Canada’s only Arctic vessel.

HMCS Labrador in the Arctic
© Canadian War Museum / George Metcalf Archival Collection / CWM 19920085-1004

The ship headed to the Arctic on July 23, 1954, carrying a team of scientists from the National Research Council. They collected vast amounts of oceanographic data. There was an increased awareness of the area’s potential mineral resources, making it all the more important for Canada to assert its claims to the region.

Labrador was also involved in the establishment and supply of the DEW Line that extended from Alaska to Baffin Island. These 63 stations were meant to detect oncoming long-range missiles or aircraft from the Soviet Union. The ship was also tasked with visiting coastal RCMP posts and, if possible, traversing the Northwest Passage. In September 1954, Labrador became the first deep draft vessel to navigate the Passage. In doing so it flew the Canadian flag throughout the Arctic Archipelago thereby making a show of Canada’s sovereignty.

The 1954 Voyage of HMCS Labrador is a designated national historic event for its role in asserting Arctic sovereignty and contributing to the knowledge of Canada’s Arctic. For more information about the Cold War read Digging in for Survival, In Deep Thought at Thinker's Lodge, and Soviet Spies in Canada in the This Week in History archives.

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