Tinkering won't save lives

Michael Johansen
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In the aftermath of the failure of Canada's search and rescue service to save the life of a lost boy in Labrador, federal government officials have raised themselves on their hind legs and vowed to ... well, to tinker with the protocols.

That's all they can do without admitting that the policies of their 39 per cent government could be as much to blame for the freezing death of Burton Winters as any of the other hardships that beset him as he sought home across the ice.

He was cold and desperately lost, but he still had a chance for survival until a colonel sitting at a desk far away decided he couldn't help, that he had no aircraft to join a search for a 14-year-old boy in northern Labrador.

Where were they all? Well, the two closest helicopters were both broken and he had a third in Gander, but he wanted to keep that one in case someone else needed it. Aiding his decision was the news that it was snowing in Makkovik, which is apparently very dangerous for the military's pilots since none of them know anything about the search area.

As for why the Canadian Armed Forces didn't join the search as soon as it become possible, that wasn't their fault, either. Weren't they diligently sitting and waiting for a second request, as protocol dictates? They couldn't help it if it came too late.

The government and military have focused on their easiest failure. They've heaped all the blame for their various shortcomings onto the required wait for a second call, as if by eliminating that particular protocol they will from now on safeguard the lives of everyone who might happen to get lost in Labrador's vast wilderness.

Granted, it's a rare treat - unique, in fact - to see a member of the Conservative government admit to be doing something wrong (especially when it's the King of SAR Abusers himself), but unless the government changes its entire national military procurement and deployment policy, Labradorians and many other citizens in dire need can expect even less help from Ottawa.

Changing the rules of protocol to allow a SAR tech to pick up a telephone even if it's not ringing solves next to nothing.

Oblivious to the obvious

The real solution is so blatantly obvious that its bright clarity is probably what blinds Conservative MPs to its value.

The solution is known to everyone in and out of Labrador who mourn lives needlessly lost, to the hundreds who gather to commemorate young Burton in communities throughout the province and to the thousands who are expressing their opinions online: Burton Winters would have had his best chance of survival if there'd been more than a couple of broken-down training helicopters stationed at the Goose Bay airbase.

The boy might be alive today if there had been a real SAR unit permanently stationed in Labrador, commanded from Labrador and staffed by people who are actually familiar with the region.

That, however, is not the direction federal policy will push the hitherto useful SAR services.

Instead, the 39 per cent government is withdrawing them further and further away from the province and simultaneously depriving them of funds and personnel. Never mind making sure pilots actually know the area - Labrador will be lucky if the next colonel has even heard of the place.

This is what happens when failed economists get to run a country and its Armed Forces. The world's in recession, they say. Canada's going through tough times, they say. Austerity is once again Ottawa's mantra, which means that big corporations get billions while Canadians learn to live with less: less medicine, less care, less safety, less service and less search and rescue.

What tax money the Department of National Defence spends can't be used to station a full complement of trained personnel at 5 Wing Goose Bay and equip them with appropriate aircraft for both regular patrols and search-and-rescue duty. Sorry, but all the money is needed to buy billions of dollars worth of attack planes that the Canadian government needs to fight in some as yet undeclared foreign war.

Perhaps Prime Minister Stephen Harper should give more thought to the lives of Canadians and less to his unbalanced sense of military grandeur.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Canadian Armed Forces, Department of National Defence

Geographic location: Labrador, Canada, Northern Labrador Gander Ottawa Makkovik Goose Bay

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Recent comments

  • david
    February 19, 2012 - 20:41

    great comment michael.

  • Townie
    February 19, 2012 - 13:48

    Michael 40% did not vote. And I doubt if it was just that they were going to vote Conservative and just forget. They are also citizens of Canada. Thus the Conservatives have the approval of 24.7% of Canadians. I am not accusing you just making a correction as I see it.