In a world without war games / on our watery blue body, / there is no place for hungry egos, / no place for triggering weapons / into the belly of rich vast blue moana / because she will breathe. – “Cancel RIMPAC,” a collective poem
Two Canadian warships, HMCS Regina and HMCS Winnipeg, recently departed to participate in the U.S. Navy’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC). The largest naval war game in the world, it takes place twice a year across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii.
On their way to the islands, the warships traversed the critical habitat of the most endangered marine mammals, the southern resident killer whales. With only 76 members of this group remaining, scientists were relieved to discover at the end of July that whale J35, also known as Tahlequah, is pregnant again.
Two years ago, Tahlequah gave birth to a calf that died shortly afterward off the coast of Victoria, B.C., near Canada’s Pacific coast naval base. Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days, travelling more than 1,000 miles balancing her calf’s lifeless body on her nose. Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, called it “a very tragic tour of grief.”
While the mother orca was mourning her baby, the Canadian navy was participating in one of the most violent international maritime exercises. The navies of 25 nations participate, deploying approximately 50 surface ships, 200 aircraft, five submarines and 25,000 personnel each year.
With RIMPAC, the U.S. is trying to enhance warfighting readiness and interoperability among its allies. Canada has participated in this military exercise since its inception in 1971. This year, the Royal Canadian Navy has sent two missile-laden frigates with 500 sailors and torpedo-carrying Cyclone helicopters from its Esquimalt dockyard in B.C. to Hawaii.
During RIMPAC, the navies jointly conduct at-sea live-fire testing, ship sinking, submarine warfare and amphibious assault. They also engage in air force training, precision bombing and urban warfare practice. The exercise is a massive show of force by Western navies in the Pacific region and a provocation to China, which has been prohibited from participating.
The multinational exercise is typically held for six weeks, from June to August. However, due to the pandemic this year, RIMPAC is scaled down to a two-week period from August 17 to 31 and will be modified to mostly at-sea training.
With our oceans in grave peril and the pandemic still raging, RIMPAC should be permanently cancelled. For over five decades, Hawaiians have protested this large-scale naval exercise, citing the adverse environmental and social impacts. Canadians must join their protest and pressure our government to not participate.
During the exercise, the extreme underwater noise from naval sonar, sonic booms and explosive torpedoes severely harms aquatic mammals. The U.S. Navy’s own research shows that high-intensity mid-frequency active sonar causes hearing loss and hemorrhaging in dolphins and whales.
Sonar systems, which were first developed by the U.S. Navy to detect enemy submarines, generate intense, undulating sound waves that can reach 235 decibels — twice as loud as the world’s loudest rock bands. The sonar pulses are so loud that marine mammals cannot hear, and as the ocean conservation organization Oceana explains, “a deaf whale is a dead whale.”
American and British research have found that naval activity is a probable cause of many mass stranding events, where whales beach themselves and die. During the 2004 RIMPAC exercise, approximately 150 deep-water melon-headed whales crowded into the shallow Hanalei Bay to escape the naval activity.
During RIMPAC, the Canadian navy has admitted that support staff will be ashore at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu. The large naval base is a superfund site and is highly contaminated with hydrocarbons and toxins. Around the Hawaiian Islands, the military has also dumped chemical weapons and littered the marine environment with exploded and unexploded ordinances.
COVID-19 outbreaks on warships
With the pandemic, many Hawaiians are also rightly concerned about the influx of foreign soldiers during RIMPAC. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the navy has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections among all military branches. At least 26 U.S. Navy ships have had coronavirus outbreaks.
Crews are at risk of coronavirus in the close quarters of naval vessels. It is impossible to be physically distant on a warship or submarine. Recent outbreaks have also occurred on a French warship and a Dutch submarine, and both France and the Netherlands are participating in RIMPAC this year.
The Canadian navy has said that its sailors and aviators will be quarantined prior to the exercise and that COVID-19 testing will be conducted, but it will not release any information about infections within its ranks.
‘Free play’ and military sexual violence
The commander of the Canadian Fleet Pacific, Angus Topshee, also announced that due to the pandemic, the navy’s “Free Play Phase” of RIMPAC has been eliminated. During this phase of the exercise, military personnel go ashore for socializing, rest and relaxation, heading to the beaches and bars in Honolulu.
As a male-dominated military exercise, RIMPAC has had terrible impacts on women and girls. The Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women has found a dramatic increase in prostitution and sex trafficking to meet the demand for sex from military personnel during the exercise.
In 2014, the Canadian navy had to recall HMCS Whitehorse for sexual misconduct and drunkenness during RIMPAC. In both the U.S. military and the Canadian Armed Forces, women comprise only 16 per cent of the personnel and female service members have also suffered terrible sexual harassment and assault by their male peers.
In her book Refuge on the Black Deck, Nicola Peffers, who served as an ordinary seaman on board HMCS Winnipeg, described the sexual harassment she and others suffered in the Canadian navy. In 2016, Peffers launched a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian government for military sexual misconduct and won a $900-million settlement last year.
This past May, the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and AF3IRM Hawaiʻi, a transnational feminist organization, held an online event examining the connections between militarism and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. They discussed how the military’s desecration of the land and ocean is directly linked to its violence against the bodies of women and girls. To protest RIMPAC, the women’s organizations launched a campaign: #ProtectWatersProtectDaughters.
New warships to sail dying oceans
Warring on our oceans is going to get worse. To sustain naval warfare readiness, the Canadian government is spending $70 billion on 15 fossil fuel–powered surface combatants to be built at the Irving Shipyard in Halifax. It’s the most expensive procurement in Canadian history. The U.S. is building new destroyers and the United Kingdom is building new aircraft carriers.
Warships and war games like RIMPAC are forms of environmental violence adding to the cumulative stress in the marine environment. The oceans cover 70 per cent of the planet. They create over 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, absorb carbon, regulate the climate and provide food — and they are in serious peril.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 special report, our oceans are heating up, acidifying and losing oxygen because of human-induced climate change. There are now more than 500 ocean “dead zones” and a mass extinction of marine life underway across the oceans.
Coral reefs, which provide critical fish habitat and are essential to healthy oceans, are dying. In 2009, a huge American guided-missile cruiser destroyed coral as it ran aground near Pearl Harbor. Canadian naval vessels have also spilled and leaked fuel in the Halifax Harbour and in the Strait of Georgia, where endangered killer whales travel.
Resistance to militarization
With the help of U.S. marines in 1893, wealthy American barons who owned large sugar plantations overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy to resist tax payments and control the natural resources. Ever since, the people of Hawaii have resisted the illegal American occupation and militarization of their islands.
In the 1970s, for example, Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, a grassroots group of activists, began regular occupations of an island that had been expropriated by the U.S. military for target practice. The island of Kaho‘olawe, named by Indigenous Hawaiians for a deity of the ocean, was heavily bombed and destroyed by the U.S. military. Activists were continuously arrested and imprisoned for trying to stop the destruction.
Every RIMPAC, groups such as the Oceans4Peace Coalition, Women’s Voices Women Speak, Malu ‘Aina, and the Demilitarized Zone Hawai’i/Aloha ‘Aina have protested the exercise. This year several peace and environmental groups have come together to form the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition, which has partnered with World Beyond War in New Zealand and the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace to host webinars to raise public awareness and to pressure the governments of participating navies to withdraw. Last week at the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu, the coalition delivered a petition with 12,000 signatures to Governor David Ige urging him to request that the U.S. Navy cancel RIMPAC.
RIMPAC is a serious threat to peace in the Pacific, and the coalition calls for the demilitarization of the ocean. Canada and 167 countries, including New Zealand, France, Netherlands, China and Russia, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Though the U.S. has not signed the convention, it provides a legal mechanism for resolving any maritime dispute peacefully without frigates and armed force.
The Canadian government should not participate in the exercise and should not invest in new warships. Instead, Canada should work with other countries on a blue recovery to protect our oceans, which are critical to our survival.
This summer, 13 Indigenous poets from Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Guahan (Guam) wrote and recorded a powerful poem to call for the cancellation of RIMPAC and for a world without war.
“In a world without militancy, / silk breaths line a womb / finally she can breathe.”
As they performed to ethereal music, I imagined our oceans demilitarized and healed. I imagined whales, dolphins and sea turtles swimming in peace. And I prayed for Tahlequah struggling to survive, but pregnant with hope.
Find out more and sign the Cancel RIMPAC petition. Tamara Lorincz is a PhD candidate in the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, and a member of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.