So Long Bonnie: The Decommissioning of HMCS Bonaventure and Canada’s role in Anti-Submarine Warfare, Part II

By Hugh A. Gordon, Keyano College

Part II: Scandal and a Changing Strategic Situation

This is the second in a series of articles about the decommissioning of the HMCS Bonaventure. See Part I.

1965 Drawing of Bonaventure by Captain Frank Harley, Canadian War Museum, Object 20070061-007

In early 1963, the Diefenbaker government was defeated by Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson who pledged “60 Days of Decision” to launch legislative proposals that would include a new flag and healthcare reform, but also to arm the Boeing Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (BOMARC) missiles with nuclear warheads. As his Minister of National Defence, Pearson chose perhaps the most controversial person ever to hold that office, Paul Hellyer. Best known for the calamitous “Unification” of the Armed Forces, Hellyer also altered Canadian defence strategy to fit the changing strategic situation.

Paul Hellyer, circa 1969. Wikimedia Commons.

In a White Paper published in 1964, the government “stayed the course” with ASW and the Bonaventure, but there were troubling signs on the horizon. Whereas simple deterrence had been the overarching NATO and NORAD policy prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the problem with that strategy was that conflict of any level had the chance of erupting into nuclear war, which ensured that both NATO and Warsaw Pact nations would be utterly destroyed. As a result, US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara formulated the idea of graduated or “flexible response”. American forces would respond to threats in kind meaning that a conventional attack would be met by equivalent levels of conventional forces. Nuclear attacks would be answered with nuclear weapons, either in a limited or global war.[i]

The White Paper pledged to continue ASW as a means to promote deterrence. However, this was primarily because of Canada’s past investment in such forces, not because the government felt it was necessarily the best use of Canada’s military. Canada had spent millions in ASW, from the St. Laurent destroyers, to the hydrofoil Bras d’Or, to Bonaventure itself. Hellyer hinted that Canada might acquire nuclear submarines, but that was a problem for greater study. He believed the hydrofoil was the next step in ASW, not the Bonaventure. Nevertheless, the carrier remained an integral part of the new Maritime Command.[ii]

The operational support ship Provider prepares to re-fuel the aircraft carrier Bonaventure during exercises in the north Atlantic. Canadian War Museum, Object 19880289-267

In 1966, Bonaventure docked at Davie Shipyard in Lauzon, Quebec to be refitted. The hull was twenty-one years old at this point and the ship had not been refitted since it had been commissioned nine years earlier. The government and the shipyard estimated that the refit would cost nine million dollars, but when Bonnie left the shipyard a year later, the bill for the government totalled over seventeen million dollars. This created a minor scandal for the Pearson government. The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons investigated the refit, but would only release its report after the government had decommissioned the carrier. This led to some speculation on the part of some historians, like James Boutilier, that the refit was the primary reason scrapping the carrier altogether.[iii] The reason for decommissioning Bonaventure was not embarrassment over the refit, but some observers were glad to see it go because of the scandal. One reason why the costs had skyrocketed was that the shipyard had reserved the right to re-negotiate labour costs for “work arising” during the refit. More work was needed on the twenty-one year old hull than was initially thought.[iv] Kevin Buchanan, a marine engineer who served onboard the carrier suggested, partly in jest, that the carrier spent more time in Portsmouth, England than in Halifax, and much of the time in the British port was spent scavenging for parts from Bonaventure’s sister ships.[v]

Marc Milner suggests that the refit costs ballooned because the carrier was kept in commission while the refit took place. He notes this practice was unusual, and the Public Accounts Committee did take the government to task for allowing this to happen. The officer in charge of supervising the refit, Captain J.M.A. Lynch, suspected that the Navy was trying to rush the refit so that the Air Force would not be able to charge that if the navy could do without the carrier for eighteen months, then perhaps it did not need a carrier at all. As a result, the refit was rushed through in twelve months rather than the specified eighteen.[vi] Despite the brouhaha over the cost of the refit, it did nothing to amplify the ship’s war-fighting ability. The impression “below decks”, according to marine engineer Kevin Buchanan, was that the Bonnie’s refit had more to do with redecorating the wardroom with items like mahogany panels than anything else.[vii]

In 1968, the new Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau undertook a major review of Canada’s defence and foreign policy. According to Granatstein and Bothwell in their book Pirouette, Trudeau’s foreign policy was directly related to Canada’s national interests rather than solely focusing on Cold War alliances. At stake was not only Bonaventure’s future, but the size of the nation’s armed forces as a whole, and also such important questions as whether Canada would remain allied to NATO or become a neutral nation.[viii]

Canadian sailors board HMCS Bonaventure, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1957. George Metcalf Archival Collection, CWM 19900076-978

This advertisement for the “Venture” Plan, which sought to recruit young Canadian men, uses images of HMCS Bonaventure.
George Metcalf Archival Collection,
CWM 19760601-003c

The idea to disengage from NATO in 1968-9 would have received a mixed reaction from the Canadian public and its allies. With the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the “Prague Spring” fresh in the minds of Canadians, the “Red Menace” was still viewed as a threat, if not pushing the same panic buttons as the early 1950s. On the other hand, the idea to take a neutral path was also put forward at a time where American power and prestige were under fire. 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam where fears of a loss in that war reached the mainstream. Antiwar demonstrations were being complimented by antiwar presidential candidates like Eugene McCarthy, and more tragically, Robert F. Kennedy. A small minority in Trudeau’s first cabinet, in particular Donald Macdonald (President of the Privy Council, Liberal-Rosedale), advocated withdrawal from NATO. Others, like Minister of National Defence Léo Cadieux (Liberal-Québec), advocated a continued presence in the organization and indicated full support for the concept of nuclear deterrence.[ix]

The Defence Policy Review emphasized that Canada could “only satisfy the requirements of its national security only by military cooperation with other countries.”[x] The sole major military threat to Canada was nuclear war, which was impossible for the country to deal with alone, let alone survive. A war needed to be prevented rather than fought. Because of this need for deterrence, an exact list of required equipment and forces could not be determined. Canada’s requirements for national security were open to interpretation. If Canada was to continue to participate in collective Cold War security, it had to determine how best to utilize its resources to fulfil this goal. The main military focus was on air defence against Soviet bombers and ICBMs.[xi]

Regarding the Navy, there were several options as emphasized by the Review. One option was to maintain funding and manpower to keep Maritime Command at its present levels, while another option was to keep the manpower, but limit capital expansion and maintenance. A third option was to maintain naval forces only for “surveillance and control”. NATO activities would be curtailed and Maritime Command would be limited to submarines, destroyers, and a support ship. Canada would detect submarines, but pass along the information to its allies. The Bonaventure was not a part of this option.[xii]

[i] Paul Hellyer, “White Paper on Defence 1964”, in Douglas L. Bland (ed.), Canadian National Defence, Vol. I: Defence Policy, (Kingston: School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, 1997), 79-83.

[ii] Ibid., 85-99.

[iii] James Boutilier, “Get Big or Get Out”, in, T.R. Frame, V.P. Goldrick and P.D. Jones (ed.), Reflections on the RAN, (Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1991), 393.

[iv] Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Public Accounts, Minutes of Proceedings, 28 April 1970, No. 20.

[v] Interview with Kevin Buchanan, 1 June 2012.

[vi] Marc Milner, Canada’s Navy: The First Century, 1st ed.(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), Chapter 13, footnote 48, 332-333.

PRF HMCS Bonaventure, “Copy for DHist of letter 4 Sept. 1986 to O/Cdt Marc Gendron of RMC who was writing a thesis on a Bonaventure Refit Cost Overrun”, Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH)

[vii] Interview with Kevin Buchanan, 1 June 2012.

[viii] J.L. Granatstein and Robert Bothwell, Pirouette: Pierre Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 8.

[ix] Granatstein and Bothwell, 13-15.

[x] “Defence Policy Review,”, February 1969, RG24, Directorate of History and Heritage copy #3, Department of National Defence , Series B-2, Volume 21587 File: S-2-5040-14-1, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), 79-80.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 111-113.