MP under fire for comments on search and rescue expectations

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Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant is under fire for suggesting Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who make their living from the sea take more responsibility and not expect to be rescued by the coast guard if they run into trouble.

Explaining that those who operate on the Great Lakes and Ottawa River don’t count on the coast guard for help, the Ottawa Valley MP told an audience in St. John’s — including those who had lost relatives and fellow workers during maritime accidents — that it’s up to local communities, the province and private companies to make more of an effort to help with rescues and perhaps finance such services.

But her message during a Commons defence committee hearing last week isn’t going down well among those in the province who rely on the sea for a living.

“A one- or two-foot (wave) on the Ottawa River doesn’t compare to a 60-foot wave in the North Atlantic,” said Shawn Skinner, the province’s natural resources minister who was at the meeting.

The member of Newfoundland’s Conservative government noted rescue times on the Ottawa River would be measured in minutes while in the North Atlantic it can take hours.

During the hearing, Skinner told Gallant her remarks were offensive.

But the Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP told the Ottawa Citizen her comments were misinterpreted. She said she was trying to make the point that the province and others should work together on search and rescue.

“In Ontario we have inland seas, the Great Lakes, and it would never occur to any of us, even up in the Ottawa River, to count on the coast guard to come and help us,” Gallant, who sits on the defence committee, explained to the audience at the time.

In Ontario she said rescue resources are pooled and municipalities also have their own boats for rescues as part of a “community effort.”

“I know it would be ideal to have the federal government be there in the 30-minute response time 24 hours a day, but in practicality, we do have to pool our resources,” she told the St. John’s audience. “Just as the oil companies are starting to pitch in because they’re profiting from the resources, so too perhaps should the province think about the benefits that it is obtaining economically from that sector, and figure out a way to pool our resources, federally as well as provincially, and from the private sector.”

In the Citizen interview, Gallant said at no point was she trying to compare the Ottawa River and Great Lakes to the North Atlantic, although she acknowledges that is how some in the room viewed her comments.

“The point I was trying to make was in areas of Ontario we are so far removed from the coast guard that we rely on the pooling of resources at all levels to come in an emergency situation,” said Gallant.

“It was misconstrued,” she explained. “It was not intended to be taken the way it was and I do regret that they took the way it was.”

She said an apology is not needed as those at the meeting eventually came to realize the point she was trying to make.

But Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, whose members include fishing crews and offshore oil workers, says Gallant’s comments are still seen as insulting.

“People couldn’t believe what she said,” explained Payne. “I think there’s this expectation that (MPs) are supposed to know more.”

Gallant’s comments were particularly insensitive, Payne said, since the committee had just heard stories of tragedies at sea, including details of two men who died 15 minutes before the arrival of a rescue helicopter.

Since 1979, 193 fish harvesters have lost their lives at sea. The March 2009 crash of a helicopter into the Atlantic is also still a fresh wound for those in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That crash killed 17 people and a TSB report released Wednesday blamed the tragedy on a “complex web” of over a dozen factors.

The Commons defence committee examining search and rescue and was touring Atlantic Canada last week.

While praising Canadian Forces search and rescue technicians, a number of witnesses aired long-standing complaints the government’s search and rescue response time is too slow.

Skinner said the province already provides search and rescue services for inland waterways but the federal government has a clear responsibility to deal with rescues at sea. He noted the federal government collects hundreds of millions in taxes and royalties from the offshore oil industry so there is more than enough money to provide rescue resources for the military and coast guard.

NDP MP Jack Harris, who is also on the committee, said local fishermen volunteer for search and rescue so the community is already contributing.

He said Gallant’s comments reflect a lack of understanding about search and rescue in Atlantic Canada.

Tom Hann, a St. John’s councillor, whose neighbour died at sea, also took issue with Gallant’s comments.

But Gallant said the federal government is not trying to get out of its search and rescue responsibilities.

“It was in no way intended to download to another level of government,” she said. “Let’s all work together.”

Organizations: Ottawa Valley MP, Ottawa Citizen, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour TSB Commons defence committee Canadian Forces

Geographic location: Ottawa River, Great Lakes, North Atlantic Ontario Newfoundland and Labrador Atlantic Canada

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Recent comments

  • How about this
    February 10, 2011 - 17:08

    how about this: you're on land and are in a car accident...should you be responsable for getting yourself to the hospital? No, we rely on the ambulance for this. The Coast Guard is no different. These people who work offshore rely on the Coast Guard in the event of an emergency. I agree with HELLO, take her out on one of these choppers to an oil rig and see how long before she starts squirmin' in her seat!

  • Duffy
    February 10, 2011 - 15:57

    Only one question: Why does the Oil Industry have to pay for their Search & Rescue operations and the Fishermen expect everyone else to pay. A "surcharge" on their boats would pay for a expidited response as does the Oil Company money. Oh yea the poor fishermen.thats it.

  • redrantingtory
    February 10, 2011 - 12:14

    More complete and utter ignorance from a far right Conservative MP who knows next nothing about conditions on the North Atlantic. It is easy for a municipality on the Ottawa River to send out a small boat to help some guy stranded in a kayak or canoe. The same happens here when someone is lost on the land or on inland waterways. The RCMP and local ground search and rescue are sent out to search. However on the North Atlantic the Canadian government is responsible for search and rescue and no municipality as or will ever have the resources to search for anyone lost at sea. The logistics of this is way beyond the capability of any town or local municipality. We do have volunteer Coast Auxiliary who help in search and rescue but that program is all across Canada. The ignorance shown here by this MP is just what the Harper government is all about. They are about American Right Wing Republican style politics of downloading services onto the people and provinces and making the Federal Government smaller and less intrusive. To make this statement in front of the very people who lost family and friends due to poor response by Search and Rescue is just pure ignorant and small minded. These MP's who sit behind a desk in Ottawa know nothing of how the rest of Canada lives. Instead of trying to understand they will make such stupid statements and expect us to swallow their Conservative beliefs at the cost of more lives. If she had to cling to life in the North Atlantic waiting for a search and rescue chopper to arrive I suggest she would not be so ignorant about the topic. Comparing the North Atlantic to the Ottawa river only shows how out of touch this person is. Trying to impose her own conservative beliefs on such a topic that effects Atlantic Canada shows how brainwashed some of the right wing politicians have become. Go back to your cozy corner of Ottawa and dream of your small minded conservative world. Shame on your ignorance.

  • Hello
    February 10, 2011 - 10:49

    Send her out on a chopper to the oil fields and see how comfortable she is then when all you can see is water below for 3 hours!!!!!!!!!!

  • holy smokes
    February 10, 2011 - 10:48

    “It was misconstrued,” she explained. Nothing misconstrued......and comments of 60 foot waves can't be compared to wave in the Great Lakes is right........During my time with the navy, I have been on the Great Lakes as well as the various "seas" around the world........While Superior can be a bit dicey the North Atlantic WILL get your attention......Perhaps the minister would care to make a "personal" comparison and evaluate her opinion......Given the minister's opinion I will now ask Dunderdale IF she still feels that the conservative government still has the people's interests at heart.....This equates right down there to Harper's opinion that the Atlantic provinces and in particular Newfoundland and Labrador were breed of a stock of people "harbouring a defeatist" attitude..... Come on Cheryl Gallant.......grab some all weather gear and take a trip to the North Atlantic, South Atlantic or the Pacific especially around Alaska or Aleutians ....and see if you still have the opinion you have now....

  • Greg McQueen
    February 10, 2011 - 10:41

    Once again an ill-informed politician has shown just how out of touch she is with reality. The coast guard, police search and rescue and even the Canadian military are frequently used on the great lakes and other in-land waterways to come to the aid of people in distress. And maritime communities share in the efforts to assist in situations on both coasts. So many of our goverment ministers are appointed to positions for purely poliical reasons and not becasue they posess any knowledge of the portfolio they are assigned. This minister should have taken the time to inform herself and if change is necessary, enlist the expertise of the people who actually work on the water to address the issues.

  • Rod Mac
    February 10, 2011 - 09:59

    Another federal Conservative throwing out a trial balloon on how they could download some of their responsibilities on provincial and municipal governments. This a bad idea and if she wanted to say this she could have picked a better time.

  • Darren
    February 10, 2011 - 09:55

    Well, we shouldn't expect much more that that from a Con MP, from Ottawa valley at that.

    • Shelley
      February 10, 2011 - 10:48

      My husband works on the Grand Bank, Each time I go downtown St. John's I notice there are usually a few Coast Guard vessels tied up? Why aren't they at sea? Lack of resources? I guess Ms. Gallant is right to a certain extent. We can't expect the Coast Guard to rescue a vessel and its crewmen 200 km away when they are tied up in the harbour. Next time you look down to the harbour count how many Coast Guard vessels are there. Perhaps the Telegram can investigate this?

  • William Jones
    February 10, 2011 - 09:55

    I can't understand how Mr. Harper can continue with people so insensitive and downright silly in his cabinet. It seems that anytime it doesn't concern big buisness or the oil patch that people are not deserving. For goodness sake - to suggest that we send less experienced and equipped people out in smaller boats to help would simply compound the problem. It's time for some new blood - enough of bashing my friends on the coast.

    • Greg
      February 10, 2011 - 10:41

      yeah right ...let's blame Harper. lol There is that NFLD IQ getting in the way again. William all she was saying is that NFLD should help with the costs of running the Coast Gaurd in the north Atlandtic. WTH is wrong with that?

  • Elly
    February 10, 2011 - 09:52

    It sounds like the MP doesn't know what she is talking about

  • Linda
    February 10, 2011 - 09:52

    She obviously is a typical mainlander who don't know very much about Newfoundland and the dangers that people who make their living on the sea face every day. How insensitive and ignorant of the facts is she. You would think that a person in her position would have a better knowledge of this subject. You can't compare a lake, what ever size it is, to the North Atlantic.

    • Greg
      February 10, 2011 - 10:36

      The only thing she doesn't know about NFLDrs is the low IQ. NFLD has been standing around with it's hand out sense it joined confederation and to even suggest that they take part in funding Coast Gaurd costs to help out is just plain disgusting to them. It's time to wake up NFLD, the free ride is over. You have oil reserves to draw on start using them and actually contribute to Canada for a change.

  • seaman
    February 10, 2011 - 09:49

    i think ms gallant is right on in her thinking get provincial gov involved more not only in bog lands but at sea also .. i think ms gallant knows as much or more thn skinner hann n payne all put together ty