An aunt of Burton Winters, the 14-year-old boy from Makkovik who was found dead on the sea ice off the coast of northern Labrador last week, organized a public vigil Thursday evening outside the Confederation Building, where family, relatives, friends and members of the public gathered to call on the federal government and Canadian Forces to re-evaluate search and rescue (SAR) policies and procedures.
Stephanie Fost of St. John’s said her sister in Makkovik had posted on Facebook that a vigil and demonstration was being held in Burton’s hometown and other communities along Labrador’s coast, so she promptly co-ordinated a similar action in St. John’s, where she read a statement to local media.
“Newfoundland and Labradorians need to take a stand. We need to take a stand to honour Burton’s legacy and to make sure no other lives are lost,” she said, holding a picture of Burton in her arms, and with about 30 supporters gathered around her holding candles and signs.
“As we continue to grieve over the death of our 14-year-old Burton, we are speaking up today and will continue to speak up and hope that a search and rescue unit will be stationed in Labrador that will be adequately staffed with leadership that allows for these men and women to do their jobs and to save lives.
“We understand that Burton will never come home,” she said, as tears welled up in her eyes and her voice began to tremble. “However, we would like for future Burtons to have a fighting chance to come home to their loving friends and family. In honour of Burton Winters we are pleading for change.”
Burton was first reported missing the evening of Jan. 29, but the military said it could not dispatch a helicopter from Goose Bay due to inclement weather when it got the call the following day.
When it was discovered SAR was not responding, a private chopper embarked on a search for the missing teenager.
However, it wasn’t until three days later his body was found about 19 kilometres from his abandoned snowmobile.
On Wednesday, Rear-Admiral Dave Gardam, commander of Joint Task Force Atlantic, told media in St. John’s it was, in fact, the weather in Makkovik, not Goose Bay, that prevented the dispatch of a military chopper.
Mechanical issues with both Goose Bay-stationed choppers were also said to be an issue at the time SAR received the Jan. 30 call.
Chris Sheppard, a friend of Burton’s family, attended the vigil in St. John’s Thursday evening. Originally from Postville, a neighbouring community of Makkovik, Sheppard said the timeline of events and circumstances are unclear, but still, “something needs to change.”
“I honestly believe that someone dropped the ball when it comes to everything that happened,” he said. “With the response time it seems there was a breakdown of communication and no one’s admitting to anything.
“I think every Canadian should be worried that this happened,” he continued. “A young boy died because someone didn’t respond, and I think every person in this country should be worried when the people who should be able to respond can’t.
“I pay taxes so that these services are available,” he said. “We all pay taxes so that these things are there, and when they’re not I really have an issue with that.”
Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the House of Commons Tuesday that he asked the chief of defence staff for a “full investigation into all the circumstances around this tragic death,” and said he should have answers by the end of the week.