National Defence Minister Peter MacKay was in St. John’s Monday to meet with Kevin O’Brien, provincial minister responsible for emergency services, and to make a funding announcement. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
Defence Minister Peter MacKay was in St. John’s Monday morning to talk about search and rescue issues, and he delivered a clear message: the province needs to step up.
In recent weeks, MacKay has been defending against controversy from a federal auditor general’s report which details major problems with the national search and rescue system. MacKay met with Kevin O’Brien, minister responsible for emergency services, Monday to say that the federal government wants help from the provinces to shore up the system.
“What we addressed was the need for partnerships, and I asked the provincial minister to work with us collaboratively on a whole range of issues that pertain to joint responsibility, shared responsibility in areas of search and rescue,” MacKay told reporters. “There’s a commitment there to continue to work together to continue to address some of these concerns.”
After Auditor General Michael Ferguson delivered his report last week, Premier Kathy Dunderdale demanded immediate, concrete plans to address each of the report’s recommendations, along with specific timelines for getting things done.
On that point, MacKay said he’s already announced changes to the system that address some of Ferguson’s concerns. Last week, MacKay announced millions of dollars for new satellites to help search and rescue workers, along with moves that will improve response times during peak hours.
MacKay also announced a quadrennial review of SAR services which will figure out what changes need to be made.
But as of today, O’Brien said he’s not satisfied.
“You’re never satisfied until you see action, and I’ll only be satisfied when I see action, and the timelines surrounding that action plan,” he said. “Time will tell.”
Seemingly in the spirit of partnership, MacKay came bearing gifts. He had about $1 million in federal money for the province’s ground search and rescue system, despite the fact that ground services are solely a provincial responsibility.
O’Brien said the money was nice, but he doesn’t want the federal government to use it to try to deflect from its responsibilities to improve air and marine search and rescue services.
“I’ll take money wherever it comes from,” O’Brien said.
While MacKay was in town, he also opened the door to one of the opposition Liberals’ longtime demands — a public inquiry into search and rescue.
For more than a year, the Liberals have been calling for an inquiry, but Dunderdale has said one of the reasons it can’t be done is because the province can’t compel Ottawa to participate.
When MacKay was asked about the issue, he didn’t give a firm yes or no answer, but he seemed to indicate that if the province calls an inquiry, the federal government would co-operate.
“We are prepared to work with our partners,” MacKay said. “That’s what I signalled very clearly to minister O’Brien today, and we are going to continue to work with all of the other stakeholders.”
That was all Liberal Leader Dwight Ball needed to hear. On Monday afternoon, he renewed his call for an inquiry.
“We need to know there’s a co-ordinated approach to search and rescue for all activities,” Ball said. “We’re not there yet, and this is the reason why we need the review. We need a public inquiry to identify where all the gaps are.”
But O’Brien made it clear that the province won’t do that any time soon. He said the province has already got a pretty good idea where the holes are in the search and rescue system — the federal portion, at least — and now Ottawa needs to fix it. “The bottom line of it is that we need action now,” O’Brien said. “We have a great report from the auditor general that outlines deficiencies within the SAR system in Canada, and it’s clearly a federal responsibility.”
On that line of thinking, anyway, the province and Ottawa seem to be on the same page.
“This is not a time for recriminations and finger pointing,” MacKay said.