Premier Kathy Dunderdale said Thursday the province doesn’t need a public inquiry into search and rescue; she’s already made her judgement.
Dunderdale has been facing criticism and calls for a public inquiry in recent months in the wake of Labrador teen Burton Winters, who died earlier this year after getting lost on sea ice on his snowmobile.
Thursday, Dunderdale released all of the correspondence between the provincial government and federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
Dunderdale told reporters that after reviewing the letters from MacKay and the timelines in the Burton Winters search, she’s come to some conclusions and she’s not happy.
“We’ve made a judgement. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has made a judgement that we do not accept the explanation given by the federal government, the minister of national defence and JRCC in terms of the way they responded and why they responded that way,” she said. “We think they need to revisit their protocols and when there is a call for humanitarian support in ground search and rescue, that you ought to respond if you’re not deployed in your primary function.”
During the search for Burton, there was a critical period of time when marginal weather conditions meant commercial helicopters couldn’t fly, and ground searchers in Makkovik asked for support from the military.
No military helicopter was sent.
The documents Dunderdale tabled in the House total 27 pages, and include letters back and forth between Kevin O’Brien, minister responsible for fire and emergency services, and MacKay.
In his letters, MacKay explains the decision was made by military dispatchers that Makkovik was too far away from Gander.
He said if a Cormorant was sent to aid in the search, it could not respond to a maritime emergency or a plane crash, which is their primary mission.
“The officer in command of Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Halifax determined that he could not deploy a Cormorant to Makkovik, some three hours distant from Gander by air one way because it would have left the (Canadian Forces) unable to respond to a SAR incident within the CF primary SAR Mandate,” MacKay wrote in a letter dated May 24.
“While it is true that there were three serviceable Cormorants stationed in Gander on January 30, aircraft availability was only one factor considered by the JRCC.”
MacKay said that there was only one SAR crew on duty at the time, and if it were sent out, it would have taken up to 12 hours to call a second crew in. If there had been an emergency during that 12 hour window, they would have had a tough time responding.
One thing both the province and the federal government seem to agree on is that a public inquiry is unnecessary to get to the bottom of the Burton Winters tragedy.
In an interview broadcast on the CBC, federal regional minister Peter Penashue said that while the federal government would be legally obligated to go along with an inquiry if it was called, he doesn’t think it’s necessary.
Similarly, in a letter to MacKay on Thursday, O’Brien said that the province doesn’t think that an inquiry would turn up any new information.
“There is ample information in the public domain,” O’Brien wrote. “We believe a poor judgement call was made, but that does not on its own warrant an inquiry.
In the House of Assembly, the Liberals have been pushing hard for an inquiry for the past month, and Thursday they were joined by the NDP.
“We have seen many other inquiries in this Province and these include: Wells, Cameron, Lamer, the Ocean Ranger commission. All of these inquiries have produced good recommendations that are providing for a safer environment for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians,” Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said during question period.
“Seeing the benefits that came out of these inquiries and knowing that there is no downside to calling one, why do you continue to refuse to call an inquiry into search and rescue in our Province?”
Michael said that an inquiry would produce recommendations to improve the SAR procedures, and how the different elements of the system deal with each other.
“It is the protocols that I am concerned about and the Premier’s interest in getting them changed,” she said. “A public inquiry with the full involvement of both levels of government and other interested parties could result in the development of fail-safe protocols.”
This is a corrected version