Navigating the art of working on Canadian vessels: Multi-nationals face strict guidelines

Mar 3, 2014

By Melanie Franner

Marine simulator at BCIT's Marine Campus.  Photo by Scott McAlpine/BCIT.

Marine simulator at BCIT’s Marine Campus. Photo by Scott McAlpine/BCIT.

Meet Arpit Baweja. At 25 years old, Baweja already has close to five years of cargo vessel experience under his belt. He attained his marine license from his home country of India and has most recently worked on a contract basis with one of the world’s largest international container transportation and shipping companies. He moved to Canada just a few months ago in the hope of getting a job within the Canadian shipping industry. And in pursuance of this dream, he has encountered more than a couple of roadblocks.

Only in Canada

Arpit Baweja.

Arpit Baweja.

With a long history in shipping and transport, Canada is well recognized as a country with strong job opportunities for individuals interested in pursuing a career on the water. Transport Canada is the government agency responsible for licensing individuals to work on Canadian vessels. The agency requires a valid license or Canadian Certificate of Competency (CoC), as well as either Canadian citizenship or permanent residency.

According to Jillian Glover, communications advisor, Transport Canada, the agency issued a total of 3,500 CoCs in the past year. These included both nautical and engineering CoCs.

“A Certificate of Competency is issued once an individual has met all of the criteria for said Certificate of Competency,” states Glover. “These criteria include exams, training and medical fitness evaluations.”

There are several institutions in Canada where an individual can attain his CoC. If said individual were to attain his license via a traditional Canadian cadet route, the training would typically involve a three- or four-year diploma program from a recognized entity, such as: the Fisheries and Marine Institute in St. John’s, N.L.; the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) in Nova Scotia; the Quebec Maritime Institute in Rimouski, Que.; Great Lakes International Marine Training and Research Centre in Owen Sound, Ont.; and the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver, B.C.

These institutions are among the government-approved education facilities within Canada. Upon completion of programs at these institutions, graduates must undergo further examination by Transport Canada before the agency will issue a Standards for Training, Certification and Watch Keeping (STCW) License CoC or a domestic license CoC.

Successful completion of such programs, in conjunction with Canadian citizenship or permanent resident status, and the awarding of a CoC from Transport Canada, would allow an individual to work on a Canadian tugboat.

On the outside looking in

The route to working on tugboats for those individuals who have attained their CoC outside of Canada is a little more complicated and time consuming. The individual must first submit his records to Transport Canada for validation and review. Transport Canada will compare the individual’s record against the required Canadian standards and will issue a letter informing the individual of the courses (if any) that are required in order to attain the equivalent CoC.

“Depending on the kind of Certificate of Competency and the candidate, this process can take anywhere from six months for a CoC at master, which is limited for a vessel of less than 60 gross tonnage,” explains Glover.

Of course, the other impediment to working on a Canadian tugboat is Canadian citizenship or permanent residency. Foreign students who successfully complete a marine training program at a recognized Canadian institution will not be issued a Canadian CoC.

“All foreign students are informed that before registering into a marine program at a Canadian university/college that they can complete the training program, at the end of which they will be issued with a course completion program certificate from the institute, which they have to take back to their own country for issue of a Certificate of Competency by their own government,” explains Glover. “A Canadian Certificate of Competency will not be issued by Transport Canada. By law, a Canadian Certificate of Competency can only be issued to a Canadian citizen/permanent resident in Canada.”

Working within the system


Matt Taylor, vessel manager and Garfield Marsden, chief officer, conducting ballast tank inspections on the Barge Lambert Spirit.

Many individuals who have already attained their CoC in countries other than Canada apply to Transport Canada to attain their equivalent CoC while, at the same time, applying to Immigration Canada for permanent residency. Unfortunately, the latter is not guaranteed and if approved, can take several years to attain.

“Permanent residency is an immigration issue,” states Captain Colin MacNeil, master mariner, marine programs coordinator, Georgian College, Great Lakes International Marine Training and Research Centre (GLIMTRC). “I know it can take a number of years. But it does happen. We currently have a lot of permanent residents working on Canadian fleets.”

Of course, there is always the option of working on non-Canadian fleets.

“The world has interesting shipping regimes,” MacNeil explains. “A lot of countries are called ‘flags of convenience’ countries. An example is Panama, where there are fewer requirements for nationalities. Canada is one of the last flags in the world in which a ship owner will register a ship.”

Those cases in which an owner does register his ship under a Canadian flag occur because of the “Cabotage” shipping policy, which essentially “protects” Canadian seafarers by requiring that any cargo being transported domestically must be done on a ship registered under the Canadian flag, if such a ship is available.

The policy is similar to the U.S. “Jones Act”, which goes one step further by additionally necessitating the ship in question not only be registered, operated and manned in the U.S. and by U.S. citizens, but that the ship in question be built in the U.S. as well. (Of note, adds MacNeil, is that the lifting of the import duty on foreign-built ships, which had been in place in Canada for a generation, has resulted in an immediate and ongoing fleet renewal – which has resulted in a huge boost to Canadian shipping and potentially to seafarers themselves.)

“The Canadian tugboat industry is very regional,” explains MacNeil. “The West Coast is its own entity. The Great Lakes region, which includes the St. Lawrence, is also distinct. And the East Coast is another separate area, with a lot of tugs and barges because of the specialized equipment being moved from place to place for project work and also to service the oil industry.”

Canada calling

McKeil Marine Limited's tug Leonard M and barge Huron Spirit, transporting 10,000 T of aggregates on Lake Huron.

McKeil Marine Limited’s tug Leonard M and barge Huron Spirit, transporting 10,000 T of aggregates on Lake Huron.

Back when Arpit Baweja first thought about working in Canada, he was influenced by the country’s size and reputation.

“Canada is a very big country in shipping,” he explains. “A lot of people come to Canada for the opportunity.”

In his previous shipping experience as a navigating officer, Baweja worked on ships for long, extended contracts. As such, he ended up being away from his family in India for as much as eight or 10 months at a time.

“In Canada, the contracts are more like two months on and two months off,” he explains. “This would enable me to spend more time with my family.”

But because Baweja doesn’t have permanent resident status, his chances of getting work as a navigational officer on a Canadian vessel are zero. He is in the midst of submitting his records to Transport Canada to find out what courses he would need to attain his equivalent CoC, but he is well aware that the immigration issue is another big obstacle in his path. So, in the meantime, he has made other arrangements.

“I am not a Canadian citizen, so I know that I can’t work on a Canadian ship,” he states.

For this reason, Baweja has enrolled in – and successfully completed the first of two semesters – in a College Supply Chain Management program.

“I like to study and I wanted to use my sailing and logistics experience to benefit Canadian companies here,” he explains, adding that the reason for enrolling in the program in Canada is to enable him to meet Canadian standards. “But I wish the rules were more flexible so that I could be part of the sailing fleet.”

Canadian born and bred

Georgian College’s simulator was built and installed in 2008 for approximately $8.5 million dollars.  It comprises four large full mission navigation bridges, one classroom with 12 separate part task trainer bridges and a marine engineering simulator with one large simulated full-mission engine room and an eight-station engine simulator classroom.  The navigation simulator is designed by Transas USA, while the engineering simulator was designed by Kongsberg of Norway.

Georgian College’s simulator was built and installed in 2008 for approximately $8.5 million dollars. It comprises four large full mission navigation bridges, one classroom with 12 separate part task trainer bridges and a marine engineering simulator with one large simulated full-mission engine room and an eight-station engine simulator classroom. The navigation simulator is designed by Transas USA, while the engineering simulator was designed by Kongsberg of Norway.

Matt Taylor is a graduate of the Georgian College’s GLIMTRC marine program. He attained his certificate in marine technology in 2008 and went on to work with a company that specialized in shipping cargo on the Great Lakes.

“This is a bit of a second career for me,” he explains. “I took the advice of my dad and got a business degree and worked for a bit before getting the chance to try out the marine program at Georgian. I ended up loving it.”

Although Taylor relished the sense of adventure that came from working on the vessels, he always had the ultimate goal of working on shore. That opportunity came a bit earlier than he expected when he was asked to work in the office for McKeil Marine Limited, a long-established marine transportation and project service provider offering tug and barge services through the Great Lakes and into Eastern Canada and the Arctic. Taylor had applied to McKeil Marine during the winter months, when his regular work was laid up due to weather.

“The individual who hired me ended up with an opportunity elsewhere, so after about five months I was identified as a potential candidate to replace him,” states Taylor. “I have now been here at McKeil for close to three years.”

According to Taylor, McKeil Marine does employ multi-nationals. But it is required by law to employ only Canadian nationals on all of its Canadian flagged vessels. Being in the office, Taylor doesn’t technically need his Canadian marine license. But regardless, he is glad that he has it and will continue to update it, as required, every five years.

“I certainly benefitted from my education at Georgian College,” adds Taylor, whose company continues to work in partnership with the institute. “I was just up there in the middle of last November to present my company to the first-year cadets. We also work with Canadian institutions through their co-op programs. McKeil had about six students come through the Georgian College co-op program last year.”

A license by any other name

For students like Arpit Baweja, gaining entry into the Canadian tugboat industry can be a very long and arduous one. Many individuals recognize this, and seeing the difficulties, set their sights elsewhere.

The chances of Transport Canada amending the requirement of Canadian citizenship or permanent residency as a necessity of attaining a Canadian CoC are very small and would require changes to the actual Canadian Shipping Act.

And, in fact, according to MacNeil, although there is a shortage of seafarers in Canada, there are sufficient Canadian officers to work on Canadian ships or tugboats. Finding officers with relevant experience, however, is a constant struggle for ship owners.  The demand, he adds, is from foreigners who would like to obtain a Canadian CoC.

“Licensing of foreigners with a Canadian CoC would not affect Canadian jobs,” states MacNeil. “It would enable those individuals who don’t have access to domestic marine programs to obtain a Canadian license, allowing them to work in those countries that do not have the citizenship or permanent residency restriction.”

MacNeil goes on to cite the example of Great Britain, which accepts and issues STWC licenses to foreign students.

“In Great Britain, for example,” he says, “foreign students are accepted into their marine programs and are issued a British STCW license by the British maritime authorities, which enables them to work on ships flying flags from countries that do not have this residency restriction. There is a distinct difference between a Canadian STCW CoC and a STCW marine license from another country. A Canadian CoC is valid internationally, enabling holders to work for foreign flags, as well as Canadian flag ships. A non-Canadian STCW CoC, on the other hand, enables an individual to work on ships around the world – but not on Canadian flag vessels.”

In an effort to broaden the number of foreign students accepted into Canadian marine institutions, some Canadian institutions are researching the possibility of partnering with foreign countries.

“In this scenario, for example, countries like Nigeria would send their students to Canada for the educational and training components, and upon successful completion, the graduates of the program would be issued a CoC from Nigeria instead of Canada,” explains MacNeil.

Such a scenario would enhance Canada’s capability of helping foreign students – and Canadian institutions – without affecting the rules that govern Canadian CoCs. They would also take advantage of available placements in Canadian institutions.

According to MacNeil, for example, the GLIMTRC alone typically has about 24 marine students in each of its marine navigation and engineering programs.

“We’ve got two or three foreign students enrolled here,” he states. “But we could handle 20 to 30 more if we didn’t have the CoC restriction that discourages foreign students from studying in Canada.”

The seas of change

For now, however, Canada remains one of the few countries in the world to place significant restrictions on the issuing of a Canadian CoC. Foreign students looking to attain an equivalent Canadian CoC are still faced with the permanent residency requirement. And although some dedicated and single-minded individuals have successfully traversed this path, many others – like Arpit Baweja – are forced to amend their dream of working on Canadian vessels.

“Sailing is my first choice,” concludes Baweja. “But if I can’t work on a Canadian ship, I will be happy to work in a Canadian shipping office.”