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Premier Dwight Ball says scope of 2019 search and rescue inquiry will be determined in co-ordination with federal government
The announcement Tuesday that an inquiry will be established in 2019 into search and rescue services in the province was a long time coming for the family and friends of Burton Winters.
Winters, 14, died after he went snowmobiling near Makkovik in Labrador in 2012. His body was found three days after he was reported missing. Search and rescue helicopters were not called to look for him until two days after the report, something that caused widespread concern.
The provincial inquiry — which will not focus on any one incident, but will examine how services as a whole are provided in this province — hopes to answer why there was such a delay in the Burton Winters case, and what measures can be put in place to ensure such a situation doesn’t happen again.
Tommy Williams, the lawyer representing the Winters family, said it has been tough on the family waiting for answers these past six years. He said, however, the family is pleased the inquiry will proceed.
“They have a lot of unanswered questions,” Williams said.
“With respect to what elements are going to come up in this inquiry, whether any particular section or phase will be referring to Burton Winters, we are still in the early stages to see that. I don’t want to pass judgment in terms of what the inquiry would cover until I see the terms of reference."
— Tommy Williams, Winters family lawyer
“These inquiry processes delve down deeply into how these things function. So it’s not just totally centred on Burton for the family. They know there are other families that experience these type of losses, as well. So, yes, we would like to get the answers to the questions in his particular case, but as well to see whether or not there are findings and determinations that can be made to avoid these kinds of issues.”
Last Thursday, the federal Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans released the findings of its study into maritime search and rescue in the province, something the provincial government was waiting on before announcing its own inquiry.
One of the recommendations in that report is for an increased use of private-sector helicopters to assist in search and rescue operations, rather than increasing the resources of the Canadian Coast Guard or Canadian Forces in the area.
Premier Dwight Ball made the inquiry announcement Tuesday. He had also called Burton Winters’ family to inform them.
He said the province will follow closely whether the federal government accepts the findings of the Report of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, as that will affect the scope of the province’s inquiry.
The Senate review and recommendations, Ball noted, will help form the basis of the provincial inquiry.
“I appreciate the considerable work and beneficial changes that have already been undertaken by the federal government to enhance search and rescue over the last few years,” Ball said.
“Given the federal government’s jurisdiction in maritime search and rescue, co-ordination would be required before we proceed.
“I have also spoken with family members of Burton Winters. Our efforts through this inquiry are intended to ensure and enhance the safety of the people throughout our province, and their experience is important because it underlines how vital effective and responsive search and rescue support is to the people who need it.
“While considerable strides have been made with respect to search and rescue, through the mechanism of an inquiry we will endeavour to identify any remaining gaps and pursue the best possible outcomes for the people of our province.”
Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds says the inquiry is about more than the tragedy that befell Burton Winters. He hopes all Labradorians will feel safer for having search and rescue examined and, hopefully, improved.
“I travel along the ice and our water extensively. There’s times I’ve rescued people, there’s times I’ve taken bodies back, and there’s times I’ve been rescued myself,” Edmunds said.
“Any element of improvement when it comes to search and rescue makes us all feel more comfortable.”