An opportunity lost and a mistake made

Bob Wakeham
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A scattered time a politician is fortunate enough to come across an issue that not only has the potential to boost ballot box credibility, but also allows him or her to do what is universally perceived as right and proper — a no-brainer, in other words, a chance to get both fans and detractors applauding as one.    

And that’s why I was particularly gob-smacked to hear after 10 days away from the province how Kathy Dunderdale — the “accidental premier,” as she was coined by a prominent Newfoundlander I happened to bump into at Philadelphia International Airport the other day — cancelled a meeting with the family of Burton Winters, the young man who died so tragically on the Labrador sea ice this past January, a decision that was equally cold-hearted and politically stupid.  

It’s hard to imagine a single soul in the province who wouldn’t have agreed that the meeting should have taken place, that it was what decency called for. Plus, as I say, it would have been the astute decision for Dunderdale to have made as well, a motherhood issue if ever there was one.  

But Dunderdale let the opportunity disappear when she put the kibosh on the meeting with the shallow excuse that young Winters’ grandmother, Charlotte Winters-Fost, had asked that a former search and rescue co-ordinator attend the meeting to facilitate questions she and the family had on the useless efforts by authorities to find the lost boy.

You have to ask yourself what Dunderdale had actually planned for Winters-Fost. Did she think Winters-Fost, desperate to get some understanding of the death of a grandchild, would be content with a cup of tea, a couple of biscuits, and a patronizing, sympathetic tap on the head from the exalted hands of the premier? Did the premier herself actually believe it would be sufficient to have a  “grandmother to grandmother” sit-down, as she so patronizingly put it?      

I mean, God almighty, Mrs. Winters-Fost simply wanted to ask the leader of the province why she

hadn’t vehemently and bluntly demanded a federal public inquiry into the death of her grandson, or had not ordered her own government to initiate such a public investigation.  

And how insensitive, cruel, in fact, to suggest that this mourning grandmother wanted to turn the meeting into a “media circus,” that she was going to use the get-together as a public relations exercise, a “mini-inquiry in my boardroom,” as the premier so mockingly phrased it.

What a shocking accusation to make against a woman trying to simply find out why her grandson was forced to walk 19 kilometres in the snow before perishing (certainly one of the saddest solitary deaths to take place in this province in recent memory), while red tape and inept decision making were keeping helicopters from searching for him as he still wandered the sea ice, desperate to find his home.

Having spent a fair amount of time in the outdoors and having traipsed through the scattered blizzard, and having gotten disoriented on a cold winter’s day on the barrens or in heavy woods, I couldn’t help but admire just how gutsy this young fella was; any of my experiences would have to be multiplied a million-fold to come even close to trying to imagine what Burton must have gone through, but he was a brave kid. I don’t think I would have lasted as long as he did.

But getting back to the Dunderdale blunder: her decision on the meeting comes on the heels of months of pathetic response to the movement of the search and rescue communications personnel to the mainland, and you have to wonder who is supplying the new premier with her advice these days.  

Is she having these brain cramps all on her own or is she getting some expensive help?

This should have been an easy call, from both a human and political point of view.

A boy dies, there are questions to be asked, a family wants a meeting, and asks that an expert be there. Cancelling the meeting at that point was the work of a poltroon, and the kind of move you’d expect from someone with a cold, cold heart.

And it was certainly one of the dumbest decisions Dunderdale has made in her short time on the eighth floor of Confederation Building.

The public might not understand all the ins and outs of a Muskrat Falls, for instance.

But it damn well knows all it needs to about a politician turning down a request for a meeting from a grieving grandmother.  

It’s one of those issues easily understood and not easily forgotten.



Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Philadelphia International Airport, Confederation Building

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Muskrat Falls

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Recent comments

  • William Daniels
    May 22, 2012 - 11:10

    Well said Mr. Wakeham. Definetley insensitive and cruel. I hope she is not paying for this advice. The Premier needs to just call this inquiry.

  • Ash Parker
    May 20, 2012 - 07:54

    Bob, you and the PROMINENT Newfoudlander in Philadelphia should get yoiur facts straight before you go shooting off your mouth. Along with every single Newfoundlander, my heart aches for the Winters’ family; and I understand how desperate they must be to get answers. However, it not hard to see that this issue is being used by individual’s with their own private agendas who hoping to score political points by exploiting this child’s death and this family’s grief. The publication of your article is an example from Dwight Ball's article in Thursday's paper it is easy to see where his motives lie. Premier Dunderdale was more than ready to meet with the family based on what had been discussed with Burton’s grandmother, initially. When the family decided to involve Mr. Peddle, the scope of the meeting became technical in nature; and this type of meeting would certainly have been more appropriately handled by the responsible Minister. However, The Premier still agreed to meet with the family in a separate meeting. It is really unfortunate, that the family refused to attend either meeting. I hope they change their minds and agree to meet with the Premier afterall.

  • Cyril Rogers
    May 19, 2012 - 11:11

    This government has committed one bluder after another so how can we trust them with anything they say or do. Incompetence is hardly a strong enough term to describe the whole administration from the"accidental" Premier on down.