CBC-TV’s “The Fifth Estate” aired its much anticipated documentary on the death of Burton Winters Friday. The Labrador teen froze to death on the sea ice near his home in Makkovik in January after taking a wrong turn on his snowmobile.
The “Fifth Estate” is a powerful show. It asks tough questions, roots out hypocrisy and has even helped effect justice in criminal cases.
But it also presents known facts as if they’d extracted them from some secret vault. And in some cases, it will veer towards a sensational conclusion like a boat with a stuck rudder.
The main point of contention in the Winters case is the way in which the official story as to why no military SAR team was dispatched kept changing.
At first, inclement weather was cited, even though a smaller civilian helicopter was in the air on the first full day of the search. Soon it was revealed that two Griffon choppers at Goose Bay were out of service.
As to why no Cormorant helicopter was sent from Gander, answers varied from a lack of Hercules transport plane support to the dubious protocol of waiting for a callback.
The commanding officer even suggested he had to prioritize a hypothetical need elsewhere over the actual one in Labrador.
“The Fifth Estate” found, with some cause, that these glaring discrepancies point to a major failure.
Some caveats are necessary. Ground searches are a provincial responsibility, and the military does not regularly get involved. Specifically, federal resources are targeted towards air and marine rescues.
But this was a judgment call. And as Winters’ plight proved, land and sea can be hard to distinguish on the frozen Labrador coast.
On its website, the Department of National Defence (DND) emphasizes that the success of search-and-rescue services must be based on overall statistics.
“In Canada, on average, 97 per cent of the lives at risk in maritime distress are saved each year,” it states. This is true.
And on this count alone, the SAR system has been a stunning success.
But one thing “The Fifth Estate” made only passing reference to is that of other recent SAR failures.
The Cougar Flight 491 crash in 2009 was a failure, not in that a response from Gander would have made a difference, but in the fact that no equipment was available if it could have. The Cormorants were in Halifax on a training mission.
This is alarmingly similar to the situation at the Goose Bay base in January.
At the Wells inquiry following the Cougar crash, a DND corporal explained why no SAR operation report was done in the aftermath.
“A (report) is written by the military if there were some anomalies, some difficulties, some challenges or some lessons to be learned from an operation.”
So, the absence of any equipment to respond does not even count as an anomaly?
Another problem came to light after the sinking of the fishing vessel Melina and Keith II in 2005. Four fishermen on that vessel died as the crew waited four hours in the water for help to arrive.
The main problem?
The call came just before a 4 p.m. shift change, meaning the minimum half-hour-to-takeoff response time fell by the wayside.
How can a vast area of sea and land be covered by a staff that only works a full complement during “bankers’ hours”?
SAR technicians have a tough, dangerous job, and the effect of negative publicity can’t be doing much for morale. But it is starting to look like something is wrong at the administrative and/or political level.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, meanwhile, seems to think public relations is the answer to everything.
On Monday, his department issued a bizarre news release reporting that a Cormorant from Gander performed an emergency patient transfer from Makkovik to Goose Bay.
The last time DND reported on a civilian rescue operation was last October — and that was apparently because a SAR technician died in the effort.
“The Canadian Forces stand ready to assist provincial authorities resolve situations where lives are in peril,” MacKay stated in Monday’s release.
Actions, of course, speak louder than words.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.