On June 19 of 2011, a coalition of labour leaders, politicians and citizens came together in St. John’s for a common goal to save the Marine Rescue Sub-centre from federal cuts.
A few days later, on June 27, more than 1,000 people converged on the St. John’s waterfront for a high-energy rally filled with determined speeches and vows of victory. The sub-centre would be saved come hell or high water.
During his speech in front of the jubilant, flag- and placard-waving crowd, St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe asked, “Mr. Harper, are you listening?”
Time has shown that, evidently, he was not.
The sub-centre has officially closed its doors and all calls that would have once been sent to it are being routed to Halifax. Today is the last day of employment for the rescue co-ordinators it once employed. It had a staff of 12.
There was another rally on the waterfront Monday, this one much more subdued and sombre than that of last summer.
But the players were the same. The organizations that banded together last year, now calling themselves the Mayday Coalition, gathered by the small-boats harbour near Fort Amherst to mark the closing of the sub-centre they fought so hard to save.
But it was not to be, said Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.
“Sadly, no amount of protest, pleading, petitions or letters have been able to move the Harper government off its course,” Payne told the 50 or so people who gathered at the cusp of the Atlantic.
Those who spoke, like Payne — including Fish, Food and Allied Wokers president Earle McCurdy and St. John’s Coun. Danny Breen — minced no words in their speeches. All agreed the closure of the sub-centre would cost lives.
According to the Canadian Coast Guard, the centre handled an average of 500 incidents a year, involving 2,900 people. Of those calls, 28 per cent were classified as distress signals.
The closure of the sub-centre, as well as another in Quebec, was announced by the federal government last spring. The Quebec sub-centre has since been given a reprieve.
The government has maintained all year the closure of the St. John’s sub-centre alone would save taxpayers $1 million. It has also insisted lives will not be put at risk as a result of the closure, because advancements in technology will allow the Halifax centre, and another in Ontario, to handle calls for help from the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore.
Peter Penashue, Labrador MP and the province’s representative at the federal cabinet table, has stood by his government’s decision. He has said in previous interviews that his government would never willingly cut services essential to save lives.
But one man at Monday’s rally has just as steadfastly refuted that assessment throughout this past year’s war of words.
Merv Wiseman is retiring today from his position as a rescue co-ordinator at the sub-centre, but throughout the battle to save it, his has often been the loudest voice.
He certainly got the loudest cheers and applause of all the speakers yesterday.
“What’s been consistent from Day 1 is the fact that we’ve had good supporters — the people of this province who know that something has gone wrong. Even people who can’t articulate all the intricacies and issues around this know there is something wrong,” Wiseman said.
“In a province that is defined by its maritime activity, we know that the least we can afford to be doing is looking after the people involved in the oil industry that is expanding and a fishing industry that is (so important,)” he said.
After the speakers said their few words, Payne invited three people to stand next to the podium with three small lanterns holding candles representing, among other things, the lives lost at sea.
One of those people was Tracy Button, skipper of a trawler.
“It’s a very emotional day. I think we’re going backwards instead of forwards. I feel like we got kicked a second time. We’ve worked so hard over the past 15 years to improve safety aboard our vessels and to make sure our crews are saved … and then they go around and do this to us? The best safety equipment we got on board is that radio,” she said.
Gordon McCarthy is another skipper who made the trip to the ceremony.
He’s had to use the sub-centre’s expertise a couple of times, he said, and its always been a comfort to know there is a local person on the other end of the radio when you call for help.
“This is an important issue for everybody. … It’s just another thing for the Harper government to downgrade services here in Newfoundland,” he said.
“There’s people here with local knowledge. They are familiar with a lot of the fishermen and stuff. So it makes a lot of difference.”
But as much as there was talk of what it meant to these people to lose the sub-centre, there was also talk of getting a campaign going to bring it back. It can be done, they said.
Rom Dalton, a skipper from St. Mary’s, he said he is wholeheartedly on board with that plan.
“It’s important to not end this, but to start a new beginning, the fight for this to open again. And to remember, I suppose, that the next time there’s someone at the bottom of a boat, at least we tried,” he said.