Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Winnipeg is a patrol frigate in the Royal Canadian Navy. The vessel boasts one of the most advanced warship designs in the world. Over 130 meters long, she weighs more than 4,700 tonnes and features a helicopter deck and hangar. She houses a crew of 225. This ship has an exemplary record, protecting Canada’s sovereignty in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Over the years, she has been deployed on numerous missions throughout the world. In 2009, she joined NATO in anti-terrorist operations in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and a counter-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia. The HMCS Winnipeg has also escorted United Nations ships carrying relief supplies to East Africa.
In the early 1990s, the HMCS Winnipeg was one of twelve ships being built in Canada for the navy, a“made in Canada” defence industry initiative that hadn’t occurred since the building of the Avro Arrow in the 1950s. Ours was the eighth ship being readied for delivery. The ships were state-of- the-art with highly sophisticated technology that was expected to be useful well into the next century.
All twelve ships were named after Canadian cities. All twelve ships are referred to as “she.” Explanations abound about why this is so, from grammatical reasons in ancient languages, to being referred to in honour of the king or queen of the day. Whatever the reason, it is a historical tradition I heartily embraced.
As a matter of interest, the ship built in the early 1990s was not the first HMCS Winnipeg. The first Winnipeg was an Algerine Class Coast Escort built in 1942-43. The ship took up escort duties in the north Atlantic from the time it was built until the end of the Second World War in 1945.
In June 1995, the new Winnipeg ship was commissioned into Her Majesty’s service and I was named her sponsor. It is a lifetime privilege and one I will treasure forever. The Canadian Navy has the tradition of naming a woman patron to each of its newly built ships. As such, I am the only Winnipeg mayor to hold this distinction.
Historically, the custom of having a woman christen a new ship dates back to the early 1800s in theUnited States. The ceremony (not necessarily by women) dates back even further. It is said that Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians held ceremonies to ask the gods to protect their sailors.
Modern-day honours are usually bestowed to women who have achieved distinction in their local communities. A Commissioning Committee, comprised of many prominent Winnipeggers, was struck to decide on who would receive this appointment. I was truly honoured to be chosen.
As the ship’s patron, I was invited to two ceremonies. The first was held once the ship was built, and took place at the St. John Shipbuilding shipyard in New Brunswick on June 25, 1994. St. John Shipyard was owned and operated by the Irving family, a very well-known family in the Maritimes. The event was organized to mark the naming of the ship. A number of dignitaries and guests from Winnipeg were invited. Over 500 people, mostly workers of the shipbuilding company, attended the shipyard ceremony. The pride of every person who helped build the ship shone that day and it was quite remarkable to witness. This had been a huge undertaking and it was evident that everyone was proud of their accomplishments.
Traditionally, the launching of a ship has always been a festive occasion and the ceremony for the launching of the Winnipeg was no different. I was asked to christen the ship with a modern-day, spring-loaded device that mechanically smashed a bottle of champagne onto the ship. All I had to do was pull a lever and it was done. Following the ceremony, guests were treated to a lovely lobster luncheon. I had the pleasure of being part of this celebration and had the opportunity to meet Mr. Arthur Irving, Sr., his sons, and other members of his family. I also met the dynamic Elsie Wayne, a New Brunswick politician who had been mayor of the city of St. John from 1983 to 1993. She too was the first woman mayor in her city, so we had a lot in common. She had recently been elected as a member of Parliament, the only Conservative MP other than Jean Charest in Québec. This was the federal election where the Conservatives were nearly wiped off the electoral map. Elsie was a dedicated and accomplished individual, and I was privileged to have met her.
Not long after the ceremony in St. John, in the fall of 1994, the Winnipeg set sail on contractor sea trials for a week. This is a custom for newly built ships to ensure that they are “sea-faring ready.” The ship was officially accepted by the Canadian Navy and her crew was appointed in October 1994. She then sailed to her post in Esquimalt from Halifax, south around North America and via the Panama Canal. Once the ship arrived on the Pacific coast, another ceremony would be organized, this one to celebrate the commissioning of the ship to Her Majesty’s Service.
On June 23, 1995, almost a year to the day of the naming of the ship, the HMCS Winnipeg was commissioned in Esquimalt. This is when the ship was actually given the designation “Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship”and it was another festive occasion that I was privileged to attend. This was a day of sweltering heat…nearly 100 degrees farenheit…and most of the guests were challenged with heat exhaustion from standing in the midday sun. I was given the opportunity to say a few words and spoke to the crowd about the pride felt by Winnipeggers to have a ship named after their city. It was such a proud moment to be standing in front of this massive ship with HMCS Winnipeg emblazoned on its side. It really reinforced the fact that “she” was named in our honour.
The officers of the HMCS Winnipeg asked permission from the city of Winnipeg to adopt the same motto; “One with the strength of many.” My reaction when they asked was “absolutely!” What a lovely tribute, I thought, to our great city and what a great motto for the HMCS Winnipeg crew to adopt. I also found out that that the ship has other “Winnipeg” touches. For example, one of the junctions inside the ship is aptly named “Portage and Main.” Pieces of Winnipeg and Manitoba memorabilia adorn many walls in the frigate, including a buffalo head, our city crest, and artwork depicting Manitoba. The city of Winnipeg also provided some extras for the officer’s dining room to enhance the look of the room for visitors.
As the ship’s lifetime patron, I continue to be in touch with the commander and the HMCS Winnipeg crew. We have a unique bond. When members of the ship are in Winnipeg, I do my best to attend ceremonial events. The ship’s officers and crew often take the opportunity to visit Winnipeg and are involved not only with Winnipeg but many Manitoba communities in raising money for local charitable organizations. Most recently, they were instrumental in raising funds for the Firefighters Burn Fund of Manitoba.
Winnipeg is fortunate to have a navy frigate named in its honour and has benefited greatly from this association. I am personally grateful to have been chosen as the ship’s patron and will continue to be fully supportive of all of its endeavours.
HMCS Winnipeg’s annual visit to namesake city, Winnipeg
Friday, Feb 15 , 2019
Commander Michael Stefanson and members of HMCS Winnipeg with Mayor Brian Bowman at Winnipeg City Hall
Commander Michael Stefanson and members of HMCS Winnipeg with Premier Brian Pallister at the Manitoba Legislature
Commander Michael Stefanson and some of the crew in front of the Susan A. Thompson Building at Winnipeg City Hall