MP under fire for comments on search and rescue expectations

Postmedia News cnd@canwest.com
Published on February 10, 2011

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant is under fire for suggesting Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who make their living from the sea take more responsibility and not expect to be rescued by the coast guard if they run into trouble.

Explaining that those who operate on the Great Lakes and Ottawa River don’t count on the coast guard for help, the Ottawa Valley MP told an audience in St. John’s — including those who had lost relatives and fellow workers during maritime accidents — that it’s up to local communities, the province and private companies to make more of an effort to help with rescues and perhaps finance such services.

But her message during a Commons defence committee hearing last week isn’t going down well among those in the province who rely on the sea for a living.

“A one- or two-foot (wave) on the Ottawa River doesn’t compare to a 60-foot wave in the North Atlantic,” said Shawn Skinner, the province’s natural resources minister who was at the meeting.

The member of Newfoundland’s Conservative government noted rescue times on the Ottawa River would be measured in minutes while in the North Atlantic it can take hours.

During the hearing, Skinner told Gallant her remarks were offensive.

But the Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP told the Ottawa Citizen her comments were misinterpreted. She said she was trying to make the point that the province and others should work together on search and rescue.

“In Ontario we have inland seas, the Great Lakes, and it would never occur to any of us, even up in the Ottawa River, to count on the coast guard to come and help us,” Gallant, who sits on the defence committee, explained to the audience at the time.

In Ontario she said rescue resources are pooled and municipalities also have their own boats for rescues as part of a “community effort.”

“I know it would be ideal to have the federal government be there in the 30-minute response time 24 hours a day, but in practicality, we do have to pool our resources,” she told the St. John’s audience. “Just as the oil companies are starting to pitch in because they’re profiting from the resources, so too perhaps should the province think about the benefits that it is obtaining economically from that sector, and figure out a way to pool our resources, federally as well as provincially, and from the private sector.”

In the Citizen interview, Gallant said at no point was she trying to compare the Ottawa River and Great Lakes to the North Atlantic, although she acknowledges that is how some in the room viewed her comments.

“The point I was trying to make was in areas of Ontario we are so far removed from the coast guard that we rely on the pooling of resources at all levels to come in an emergency situation,” said Gallant.

“It was misconstrued,” she explained. “It was not intended to be taken the way it was and I do regret that they took the way it was.”

She said an apology is not needed as those at the meeting eventually came to realize the point she was trying to make.

But Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, whose members include fishing crews and offshore oil workers, says Gallant’s comments are still seen as insulting.

“People couldn’t believe what she said,” explained Payne. “I think there’s this expectation that (MPs) are supposed to know more.”

Gallant’s comments were particularly insensitive, Payne said, since the committee had just heard stories of tragedies at sea, including details of two men who died 15 minutes before the arrival of a rescue helicopter.

Since 1979, 193 fish harvesters have lost their lives at sea. The March 2009 crash of a helicopter into the Atlantic is also still a fresh wound for those in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That crash killed 17 people and a TSB report released Wednesday blamed the tragedy on a “complex web” of over a dozen factors.

The Commons defence committee examining search and rescue and was touring Atlantic Canada last week.

While praising Canadian Forces search and rescue technicians, a number of witnesses aired long-standing complaints the government’s search and rescue response time is too slow.

Skinner said the province already provides search and rescue services for inland waterways but the federal government has a clear responsibility to deal with rescues at sea. He noted the federal government collects hundreds of millions in taxes and royalties from the offshore oil industry so there is more than enough money to provide rescue resources for the military and coast guard.

NDP MP Jack Harris, who is also on the committee, said local fishermen volunteer for search and rescue so the community is already contributing.

He said Gallant’s comments reflect a lack of understanding about search and rescue in Atlantic Canada.

Tom Hann, a St. John’s councillor, whose neighbour died at sea, also took issue with Gallant’s comments.

But Gallant said the federal government is not trying to get out of its search and rescue responsibilities.

“It was in no way intended to download to another level of government,” she said. “Let’s all work together.”