Politicians of all stripes from this province are furious over comments made by a Conservative MP about search and rescue.
Cheryl Gallant, who represents the Ottawa area riding of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, suggested Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who make their living from the sea should take more responsibility for their safety and not expect to be rescued by the coast guard if they run into trouble.
Gallant was in this province last week as a member of a Parliamentary defence committee looking into search and rescue response times.
During those hearings, she said people who operate boats on the Great Lakes and the Ottawa River don’t count on the coast guard for help, but look to local communities, the province and private companies. “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 said at the meeting.
“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.”
But Gallant told the Ottawa Citizen this week she was not trying to compare the Ottawa River and Great Lakes to the North Atlantic.
“It was misconstrued,” she said in that interview. “It was not intended to be taken the way it was and I do regret that they took it the way it was.”
She also said in that interview there was no need to apologize for her comments.
St. John’s East MP Jack Harris, who is an NDP representative on the committee said Gallant simply did not have her facts straight.
“She’s simply wrong about Ontario,” he said. “The coast guard is extremely active in the Great Lakes. They do rely on search and rescue from the coast guard.”
Harris said Gallant’s comments about Newfoundlanders helping themselves was also contrary to information the committee had already gathered, which shows just how much the volunteer coast guard auxillary contributes to search and rescue.
“It shows a disturbing lack of understanding about what’s going on,” he said.
Harris said the chairman of the committee, Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, told the same meeting he believes the time for improving search and rescue services is long over due.
The Liberal MP from Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor Scott Simms was also in the room when Gallant made the comments.
“It was almost like a comedy of errors,” he said. “What she was trying to do (was to) imply how this (issue) can be fixed with no understanding of how it works.”
Simms called Gallants comments “very condescending” and said he watched as smoke metaphorically came from the ears of many in the room who looked around questioning what they just heard.
Shawn Skinner, the province’s natural resources minister, told Gallant her comments were offensive minutes after she made them.
“Ms. Gallant was the last member of the committee to speak to us and my jaw dropped when I listened to her. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he told The Telegram. “We’re not talking about an inland waterway here. We’re talking about the North Atlantic.”
Skinner said Gallant doesn’t need to apologize, but should be better informed.
Gallant did call Skinner on Thursday afternoon to apologize and issued a news release.
“I want to offer my humble and heartfelt apologies for remarks made regarding search and rescue services. I have the utmost respect and appreciation for Canadians that make their living from the sea and in no way intended to minimize the dangers they face on a daily basis,” she said.
Before the apology was issued, Avalon MP Scott Andrews said one was needed.
“How can you not apologize?” questioned Andrews. “(She) insulted hard-working Newfoundlanders who depend on the sea for a living.”
“For this MP to come out and say this, it’s just typical of the Harper Conservatives,” he added.
Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte MP Gerry Byrne went so far as to call on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to remove Gallant from the committee.
“She’s demonstrated a contempt and a prejudice that cannot be allowed to stand,” he said. “She needs to go.”
Byrne said Harper should replace Gallant with another of his caucus members, who has an understanding of and respect for the issue.
St. John’s City Coun. Tom Hann also heard Gallants comments first- hand. He told Gallant the province has been talking about this issue since the Ocean Ranger sank. The 29th anniversary of the sinking is Monday.
“It is offensive to be talking about budgeting when we’re talking about people’s lives,” Hann said to Gallant at the meeting.
Provincial NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said Gallant repeated her comments at a second public hearing she attended.
“She didn’t get it the first time did she?” asked Michael rhetorically. “How can an MP with such little knowledge sit on a Parliamentary committee and not gain the knowledge that’s needed?”
The Liberal MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl Siobhan Coady raised Gallants comments Thursday afternoon in question period in the House of Commons.
She asked if the Harper Conservatives were telling the people of this province they are on their own.
“My father-in-law was lost to the sea,” she told The Telegram afterwards. “Seconds count here.”
“I thought (Gallant’s comments were) degrading, insulting and wrong,” she added her voice shaking with emotion.
Coady said the fact of the matter is the coast guard needs more resources.
During a scrum with reporters Thursday afternoon, Premier Kathy Dunderdale said Gallant’s comments were ill-informed.
“I just find that kind of attitude offensive,” she said. “What’s astonishing to me, you know, is we have people with such a poor analysis and poor understanding of this country involved in government. It’s remarkable.”
Provincial Liberal fisheries critic Marshall Dean also said he couldn’t believe Gallant’s comments.
“I would compare it to someone saying I don’t think we should have ambulances on the road to look after those car accidents. we should look after them ourselves. It’s almost as crazy as that,” he said.
with files from Post Media
This version has been corrected due to typographical errors.