A retired search and rescue co-ordinator says it’s ironic the province is looking to tighten access to information laws that helped the public learn more about rescue efforts to find Burton Winters.
“It’s not lost on us that we’re here today talking about the issue around access to information and that the prevailing attitude and the prevailing approach from government is to make sure information is not gotten out to the public — it’s suppressed,” said Merv Wiseman, speaking outside the Confederation Building in St. John’s on behalf of the group Friends of Burton Winters.
Bill 29, introduced this week in the House of Assembly, proposes amendments that would broaden the circumstances in which an access for information request could be denied.
The group was scheduled to hold a protest on the steps of the Confederation Building Wednesday afternoon, but Wiseman said it was postponed in light of Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s recent travels outside the province.
But that didn’t stop a few of the people on hand from sharing their thoughts on the premier’s reluctance to hold an inquiry on the death of Burton. The 14-year-old boy from Makkovik was reported missing Jan. 29 during a snowmobile ride. His body was found Feb. 1 on sea ice.
Since then, there’s been plenty of debate surrounding the search and rescue efforts leading up to the discovery of his body and the roles played by the provincial and federal governments.
Wiseman said media stories that uncovered new details pertaining to how the search for Burton was handled would not have come to light without access to information laws.
“Little wonder that we would be worried about access to information and additional constraints put on it,” he said. “This is part and parcel of the mentality, of the mindset that has prevented us from getting an inquiry.”
He added a public inquiry may be the only way to hear from employees on the ground with a connection to the search for Winters who otherwise may be fearful of reprisal.
Canadian Forces helicopters in Happy Valley-Goose Bay were unavailable to join the search for Burton on Feb. 1 due to weather, as well as maintenance and mechanical issues, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the province in a letter that military dispatchers determined Gander was too far from Makkovik to send a Cormorant.
If the Cormorant was in Makkovik, he said it could not respond to a maritime emergency or plane crash, both of which fall under their primary missions.
Ground search and rescue is primarily the responsibility of the province, and members of Friends of Burton Winters like Gerard Noseworthy are not impressed with how the Dunderdale government has responded to calls for a public inquiry.
“She’s actually refusing to say there’s problems with search and rescue within the province,” he said. “If she called an inquiry right now, everything will be investigated, and then the federal government can see how bad things really are here in Newfoundland for search and rescue.”
Wiseman said it appears bad decisions were made in both the Halifax Joint Rescue Coordination Centre and by the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador concerning the search for Burton.
“Can you imagine that just because this boy went out on the ice — on the water, essentially — in a Ski-Doo, that he was treated differently than other Canadians that would go out to sea in a boat. If this incident had occurred in a canoe on the same water, in a fishing vessel, recreational vessel, you name it, then it’s a whole different arrangement.”
Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds said Burton’s case highlights the need for enhanced search and rescue services in the province.
“With the situation that happened for young Burton, there was a cry for increased search and rescue services and clear protocols, and we got the exact opposite,” said the Liberal MHA, referencing the closure of the Marine Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John’s and radio communication centres, as well as the decommissioning of the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Harp.