Canada reforming vessel inspection program following sinking of True North II

When True North II sank in Ontario’s Georgian Bay on a blustery June morning last year, two seventh-graders on a school outing drowned. The vessel had numerous safety problems that were both serious and obvious. Yet year after year federal inspectors had certified the seaworthiness of the ferry that carried visitors to a national marine park.

The tragedy horrified people across Canada and shook confidence in Transport Canada, the agency responsible for the inspections that ensure the safety of passengers and crew aboard commercial vessels.

Now the leadership of Transport Canada is striving to demonstrate its resolve and its competence by reforming a system that allowed True North II to sail, despite dangerous deficiencies in the vessel and its operation.

The task won’t be an easy one. It falls primarily on the shoulders of Bud Streeter, who, as Transport Canada’s director general of marine safety, is responsible for the agency’s 250 ship inspectors.

He readily acknowledges the depth of the problems. In his view, the law that governs the maritime industry in Canada is antiquated. The rules and regulations adopted under that law are so voluminous and so complex that even the inspectors don’t fully understand them. The training of the inspectors and the regulations they enforce evolved in a system focused on large vessels. So when it came to examining small vessels, the inspectors were often ill prepared and confused, according to Streeter.

The deficiencies of the current inspection system were publicly aired during the coroner’s inquest held in Ontario in June 2001. During the inquiry, one Transport Canada inspector who had examined True North II on 12 occasions testified that he passed the vessel even though it was not watertight. He said he understood that the rules required a vessel like True North II to be weathertight, but not watertight.

In fact, the rules did require the hatches on the deck of the True North II to be watertight. There were other serious problems that the inspectors let pass, including draining ports that had been welded shut and a hole in the deck providing ventilation to the engine.

It was the combination of water accumulating on deck and lack of watertight integrity that proved disastrous for True North II.

“It was very obvious in the testimony that they were confused,” Streeter said of the inspectors.

He has pledged to carry out a complete overhaul of the system. The Canadian Parliament is in the final stages of adopting a new law to replace the Canada Shipping Act, one of the oldest pieces of legislation still on the nation’s books.

“It’s a very old system that we are modernizing,” he said.

Adoption of the new law, expected this fall, will open the way for Transport Canada to publish new regulations and standards. Streeter’s job will be to make sure that the inspectors understand the new standards and enforce them vigorously.

Streeter is looking for more than just strict application of the new rules. He hopes to nurture an entirely new attitude on the part of the inspectors. He wants to encourage a climate in which inspectors will aggressively promote safety rather than mechanical adherence to the rules.

“Most definitely it’s a culture issue,” Streeter said. “This is a highly educated, experienced group of inspectors. We have to convince them we have some work to do.”

The culture that shaped the way inspectors behaved grew out of an industry dominated by large vessels. That culture no longer reflects the realities. “Canada is no longer a big-ship operation,” Streeter said. “The culture change has to be from a big-ship mentality to a small-ship mentality.”

The real growth sector is in the smaller boats like True North II. Tourism, particularly ecotourism and adventure travel, are booming.

The statistics bear Streeter out. Since 1986 the number of large Canadian ships (more than 1,000 grt) has declined by almost 17 percent. During the same period, the number of small commercial vessels (less than 150 grt) increased by 23 percent.

Despite these trends, the rules and standards governing small vessels are essentially adaptations of ones written for large ones. Or as Streeter put it, the system takes “regulations for big vessels and simply scales them down.”

The inspectors generally gained their experience and training in the world of ships. “The inspectors come to us with deep-sea backgrounds,” Streeter said.

In many cases, the inspectors seemed unsure of just what the rules were for smaller vessels, Streeter said, and were perhaps unwilling to cite problems that previous inspectors had let go.

“I’m not sure that complacency is too strong a word,” he said.


The program Streeter is pushing through has a number of key elements. They include:

  • New regulations and standards written in clear language that can be easily understood by inspectors and vessel operators.
  • Specialized training for all inspectors who examine small vessels.
  • Management audits to make sure that the new standards are in fact being properly applied in the field in a way that prevents unsafe vessels from operating.

    All the inspectors will have received their training by March 2002. And the new standards will be in force by mid-April, in time for the start of the tourism season.

    The True North II disaster profoundly affected the corps of inspectors, who were left distressed and demoralized, Streeter said. But out of the tragedy, a new sense of purpose has emerged.

    “The attitude of our people already has changed,” he said, noting that inspectors are exhibiting a “high level of vigilance.”

    Still he recognizes that this reaction alone is not enough. “In the aftermath (of a disaster), people always act correctly. The problem is sustaining it.”

    That’s the primary challenge facing him, to make sure that the new rules, training and heightened supervision produce enduring results – seaworthy vessels operating under safe procedures.

    Streeter faces another significant challenge – skepticism from the industry that Transport Canada will react to the True North II tragedy in a measured way that improves safety without imposing unreasonable burdens.

    “I don’t have faith in officials in Ottawa (Ontario) to make sound decisions. I hope they prove me wrong,” said Chris McCarney, five-time past president of the Canadian Passenger Vessel Association.

    The entire industry acknowledges the sinking of True North II as a national tragedy, he said. What makes it more painful is the realization that the accident was totally avoidable. “It never should have been certified,” he said of the boat. “It never should have left the dock.”

    As manager of Gananoque Boat Line, McCarney is in charge of an operation that runs five boats that carry about 400,000 passengers a year in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River. He said he is fully aware that any more accidents like the sinking of True North II could destroy the public’s faith in excursion operations like his.

    “If you have a number of these tragedies, our industry disappears,” he said.

    While acknowledging the central importance of safety and public confidence, McCarney is nonetheless worried that Transport Canada will overreact by imposing rules that will substantially raise costs without really increasing safety.

    “In a lot of cases, common sense is lacking in the decisions they have been making,” he said. “They make a new rule and blanket it from Halifax (Nova Scotia) to Vancouver (British Columbia).”

    As an example, he cited a new rule that will require him to replace all his rigid liferafts with much more expensive inflatable ones. His vessels now have both rigid and inflatable liferafts, even though his competitors on the U.S. side of the river are not required to have either.

    He credits Streeter with making a good-faith effort to improve safety. But he doubts Transport Canada will listen closely enough to the industry to come up with rules that make good sense in terms of both safety and cost.

    “I’m hoping we get asked what we think,” he said. “We are extremely proud of our boats and our safety record.”

    Streeter insisted that his agency does give careful consideration to the economic effect the new rules may have on industry. “Transport Canada will continue to take a balanced approach in developing and implementing these measures while taking into consideration the impact they may have on the marine community,” Streeter said.

    During his testimony at the inquest into the sinking of True North II, Streeter said that he expected “to be held accountable” for changes to make sure a tragedy like the sinking of True North II never occurs again.

    Those changes are now taking shape. “I was brought here to make this happen,” he said. “And I’m going to stay here until it does happen.”

  • By Professional Mariner Staff