Sea of Outrage over Maritime Search and Rescue Closure
Sea of Outrage over Maritime Search and Rescue Closure
by Lana Payne
For centuries, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have made a living from and on the sea.
Our relationship to the sea is both complex and conflicting. On the one hand, the ocean’s bounty has sustained our people for hundreds of years and in recent times a large percentage of that bounty has come in the form of an offshore oil industry. Oil has bestowed a new kind of wealth on this windswept land – a land surrounded by thousands of kilometres of rugged and majestic coastline.
Yet the sea has also been the cause of much human tragedy for the people of Canada’s most easterly province. Untold numbers of workers have lost their lives over generations. The fishing and offshore oil industries are by their nature dangerous. These industries have claimed lives, created widows, left children fatherless, and mothers, families and entire communities broken-hearted.
Perhaps the famous Newfoundland and Canadian poet E. J. Pratt best described our loving but painful struggle with the sea in his 1931 poem “Erosion.”
It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.
It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman's face.
his is not to romanticize, but to rather explain why the people of my province have been so opposed and upset with a decision by the Harper government to close the St. John’s Maritime Search and Rescue Centre (MRSC). The centre, like its counterpart in Quebec City, is critical to the coordination of search and rescue efforts off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The centre is responsible for 900,000 sq kms of ocean and 30,000 kms of coastline. With tens of thousands of Canadians earning their living from the harsh North Atlantic, thousands in fishing vessels and on oilrigs, not a single year has gone by when the sea has not claimed numerous lives. Some years are more tragic than others.
1914: 252 sealers died in two separate but simultaneous disasters involving the SS Newfoundland and SS Southern Cross.
1982: the drilling rig Ocean Ranger sank claiming 84 lives.
2009: The Cougar helicopter, transporting offshore oil workers, crashed, taking 17 lives.
2012: Burton Winters, a 14-year-old Labrador boy, who walked 19 kilometres on the frozen sea after his snowmobile got stuck, died on the ice.
Every year: countless numbers of fish harvesters who work in what is the world’s most dangerous profession leave for work and never come home.
The Canadian citizens who work offshore and their families expect, deserve and demand a real commitment of resources to their safety. After all, their work brings billions into the government’s Treasury. But above that, while every family knows the dangers of working offshore, they expect (and deserve) that their government will do everything in its power to give these workers a fighting chance should something go wrong.
The contempt for a government that can spend $35 billion on fighter jets, hand out billions a year in corporate tax cuts, while cutting something as vital as search and rescue services is reaching widespread proportions in this part of the country.
Commissioner Robert Wells during his recent inquiry into the crash of Cougar helicopter flight 491 described our offshore environment this way. “Those of us with knowledge of the offshore waters of Newfoundland and Labrador are aware that the challenges of these waters make for one of the most difficult operational environments in the offshore helicopter world.” He wrote of “bitter, cold sea water at all times,” “high winds and stormy conditions for much of the year,” and of course “the threat of fog.”
The search and rescue centre is staffed by 12 people who have shared and passed along generations of local knowledge about the hundreds of coves, bays and headlands – many of which share the same names but are in entirely different parts of the province. Not only does the staff know how to navigate the land and the water, they are also able to navigate the dozens of thick and wonderful dialects that exist in my home province. Local knowledge and expertise are absolutely critical to rescue outcomes. This centre and its staff have saved lives on countless occasions over the years. When the difference between life and death comes down to a few minutes – local expertise can, and has, made the difference between a happy ending and utter tragedy.
This knowledge and capacity will be lost when the centre is completely closed. Instead, Ottawa thinks all of this work can be done from Halifax, with fewer resources and less staff.
Top bureaucrats have convinced politicians of the move as they have been forced to comb through departmental functions and budgets in order to produce savings for their political bosses.
The centre costs about $1 million per year to operate, not even a rounding error in the $170 billion federal budget.
And yet no amount of protest, pleading, petitions, or letters have been able to move the Harper government off its course, including appeals from harvesters, offshore oil workers and their families.
This closure comes at a time when we have been advocating for stronger search and rescue capabilities including improvements to SAR response times.
It came on the heels of a detailed and comprehensive public inquiry into the Cougar helicopter crash. It comes at a time when more and more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are working further and further offshore, in more dangerous environs, in both the fishing and oil and gas industries.
It comes on the heels of the tragic loss of life of Burton Winters.
In the hearts and minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, there is an incredible sense of foreboding, that this decision to close the rescue centre will put lives at even greater risk. Tragically, it is only a matter of time before lives will be lost because of this decision and another family will be left grieving, another community stunned by the loss of one of their own, a province will be left collectively hanging its head to mourn and think – Could he have been saved if we kept the centre open? Yet another seam upon a woman's face.
We have just marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and as so we are reminded of the factors that caused that tragedy. The sinking of the Titanic is a monument to arrogance, lack of safety awareness, over-reliance on technology and a lack of respect for the power of nature.
Is it any wonder that we ask what has been learned in the 100 years since given this reckless decision to cutback on safety? The same factors are at play today.
The St. John’s Maritime Search and Rescue Centre is scheduled to close entirely in early May. You can find out more about their important work by visiting www.maydaynl.ca
In the meantime, in my province we will continue to be vocal advocates for this centre. We will continue to fight for improved search and rescue services. We will continue to demand and expect more from our governments.
But a word of warning to the politicians who arrogantly supported this decision: every tragedy from here on out will be scrutinized with a new lens. Prepare for the sea of outrage.
(Lana Payne is the President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.)