Welcome to Fleet Week

What International Fleet Review Week means to Halifax, and for a sagging Canadian navy.

Friday, June 25, begins a week of Naval festivities here in Halifax as the harbour plays host to visiting war ships from around the world. It's International Fleet Review Week---the first in 25 years. And this time, the Queen is coming.

The Fleet Review, reserved for special occasions only, will mark the Canadian Navy's 100-year anniversary. With 28 ships and over 5,000 sailors, the affair won't be the biggest in Canadian history (that was in 1967), but it may just be the boost the navy needs right now.

The public is invited to join in all the celebrations, including tours of battle ships from Brazil, Denmark, France and other countries. The American Bus Association has gone so far as to designate "the Fleet Review as the Top Event in Canada for 2010," says captain Craig Walkington, the Canadian naval centennial coordinator.

The Review comes on the heels of last month's fleet-downsizing controversy. Vice admiral Dean McFadden ordered half of the Canadian patrol fleet be put into long-term storage---a highly unpopular decision in the eyes of critics. But within days, defence minister Peter Mackay rescinded the admiral's order, apparently in an effort to appease Conservative government supporters who say naval budget shortages are unacceptable.

Still, Navy spokespeople and critics alike suggest the admiral's decision to shelve half the fleet was not a response to budget cuts at all, as much of the media had reported. Rather, the proposed cuts were a case of too few trained sailors.

Peter Haydon, former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Naval Review, says the media got the story all wrong. Quite simply, he says "the Admiral didn't have enough sailors to send all those ships to sea at the same time."

"Every navy has a readiness cycle," explains retired commander Greg Aikins. "You'll always have a certain number of ships that are at a lower level of readiness. It's completely normal."

Consensus is the Navy is short staffed. And that won't change for a few years, says Aikins, despite the highest enrolment numbers in a decade. "This the first time in the last five years that we've successfully met and surpassed our annual" recruitment goals, says lieutenant Heather McDonald of Navy Public Affairs.

Certainly, the Navy is changing. It's undergoing a robust modernization program. But as Aikins points out, that's no reason to sound alarms. There will be fewer ships available as they are refitted, which means "the navy is going to hurt for a couple of years," says Haydon.

Still, neither Aikins nor Haydon expect the Halifax area navy bases will change in any marked way in the foreseeable future. But failing that prediction, and in the case of another controversy like the one last month, it may be time for Halifax to take in the ceremonial naval glory while it's still around. Mark your calendars! —Anna Duckworth

Check out our Fleet Week events listings!

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