It ain't over till it's over

Gerry Phelan
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Merv Wiseman should get a civic award for perseverance. He finished up with the Marine Rescue Sub-Centre this week, but not without firing a few final volleys at the governments that have allowed changes to our already inadequate search and rescue resources.

Wiseman mounted what, at times, seemed like a one-man campaign to save the facility. A mass rally a year ago was proof of people's anger but, like everything, as the weeks and months passed general acceptance crept in.

There is no need to take another swipe at the way the provincial government handled the matter. I'm still coming to grips with Premier Kathy Dunderdale saying she has a commitment that search and rescue response will not be diminished by the closure. She told the legislature, "we are not losing search and rescue services. They are not being diminished in terms of the infrastructure that is available for search and rescue ..."

I guess we're not losing planes (we have none) and choppers (we have some), but we have lost a team of co-ordinators and the local knowledge they possessed. I don't know Merv Wiseman personally, but he and other St.John's based co-ordinators were a guiding resource whenever I tracked search and rescue matters.

I made early morning calls to the rescue centre for years, and got first-hand accounts of various search and rescue cases to report to my radio audience. Wiseman, Clarence Peddle and others told me much about this province that I did not know, sharing "stuff" that made a difference to my stories on sealing vessels stuck in ice or fishing boats needing tugs because of engine failure, and yes, those tragedies at sea and the resources being used by the Canadian Coast Guard, the Marine Rescue Auxiliary and the Canadian Forces to save lives.

I am sure their local knowledge was also helpful when they were alerted to an emergency and helped task resources to a case.

When the decision to close the St. John's operation was announced, Wiseman took to the media. He's been in front of the cameras and microphones ever since, a constant caller to talk shows, and a speaker to vested interest groups far and wide, making the case that an essential service is being lost.

Wiseman told me last weekend he was working hard to be fair in his criticism. He did not want to be jumping on everything for the sake of just being heard.

Monday's rally in St. John's promised the issue won't be allowed to die. Labour groups and others vow to keep raising the matter, through petitions and lobbying.

Ottawa already knows the new Halifax co-ordination effort will be under constant scrutiny, and even a perceived mistake will prompt raised voices. Federal officials maintain the response to marine search and rescue will not change and the level of service will remain the same or better. We'll see.

It took several years, 125,000 signatures and incessant lobbying before we convinced the feds to return weather forecasting to Gander. The 2004 decision to move most of that work to Nova Scotia seemed final at the time, but a committed effort eventually forced the government to restore regional forecasting.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing over the Burton Winters case. I'm not big on inquiries, but there are more than enough questions here that deserve answers, and a formal probe may be the only way to tell the complete story and fix the problems that come to light, on the provincial and federal levels. Again, it's after the fact.

Why does it take a tragedy to find the holes, and a public outcry and persistent media to force action?

On April 26, Wiseman was quoted by Canadian Press as saying, "We know as professionals that people will die and we've expressed that view right on up the line, right up to the ministers themselves - to no avail."

Haunting words, ones I hope never need repeating.

Thanks for the fight, Merv. It's not over.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at


Organizations: Marine Rescue Sub-Centre, Canadian Coast Guard, Canadian Forces Halifax Canadian Press

Geographic location: St. John's, Ottawa, Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • Holden
    May 11, 2012 - 09:06

    In 2006 Joe Goudie was a candidate for the Conservatives, then he got burned by the in-out scandel. In 2008 Merv Wiseman was a candidate for the Conservatives, then he got burned by the loss of his job. This is not to say that they changed their opinion for personal reasons. I just wonder why they could not see at the time that the stand that they originally took was the wrong one and what the consequences would be. Do we think that Merv could have changed the outcome if he had been elected or would have wanted to?

  • William Daniels
    May 11, 2012 - 08:14

    Thanks Merv. Dunderdale and Penashue threw you under the bus on this one but you kept working. Good job.