Canadians haven’t been vocal enough in speaking up about our country’s ability to save lives at sea. Perhaps it’s an easy thing to ignore, back in Ottawa. It’s impossible to forget here in Prince Rupert. Here our families and neighbours venture out day after day to take their living from the North Pacific. Sometimes lives are lost even here in our sheltered harbour.
Scarcely a whisper was heard when the big S-61 Sikorsky helicopter was pulled from Prince Rupert in December, to be replaced by the smaller (but more fuel efficient) Bell 212. The S-61 had been here almost 40 years, and no one would argue that it was nearing the end of its lifespan. Never mind that the Coast Guard had spent years trying to cut the cost of having it here—I was personally part of that fight in the 1990s. We fought destaffing the lighthouses at the same time, though bureaucrats will ensure that fight will never go away.
Also in December a Senate committee recommended against destaffing the last lights. That’s good news, though the committee also delivered a clear message in recommending “a full cost-benefit analysis” of the role played by lighthouse keepers. Simple logic won’t rule in the end—the logic that lightkeepers have eyes when machines don’t, or that lightkeepers can fix machines when they fail. To keep the spreadsheets in order, we must ensure that saving Canadian lives is cost-effective. We need to define the return on investment in saving lives.
Now it’s the Point Henry. The proposal is to replace this multi-task cutter with a search and rescue (SAR) lifeboat with far less than half the cruising range and very limited capacity. Vija Poruks, the assistant commissioner, CCG Pacific Region, is “aware” of the comparative limitations, but points a tired finger at the Esquimalt rescue centre. This one base is the answer to all of British Columbia’s SAR needs.
And why can’t we base all search and rescue efforts out of Esquimalt? It’s less than a thousand kilometres as the crow flies from Victoria to Stewart—with today’s technology this should be no impediment. Yet those who live on the coast know that crows seldom fly in straight lines—BC has almost 26,000 kilometres of shoreline to search for lost mariners. Never mind that if a mariner is in trouble, the coastal weather is almost certainly throwing everything it has at even short-range rescue attempts. It’s not logic that drives these continuing “efficiencies.” It’s spreadsheets.
I refuse to lay too much blame at the feet of the Canadian Coast Guard. They have been seriously understaffed and seriously underfunded, with an aging fleet and workforce. Without federal government commitment, a continuous-build ship replacement policy, and the resources for meaningful recruitment, the decline will continue. However, as has been the case with every aspect of federal maritime policy, I seriously doubt that commitment will happen.
Look at the example of Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, who made very clear statements last week that suggested it was the responsibility of communities, provinces and private companies to provide and finance marine search and rescue. “In Ontario we have inland seas, the Great Lakes,” she said, “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 subsequently tried to backpedal away from this position of sheer arrogance and naïve ignorance, but she was just stating what seems to be longstanding government policy dating back through many administrations. Decisions are made in Ottawa, seemingly with the Ottawa River as the only measuring stick. Coming back to Poruks’s comments regarding the Point Henry, in addition to the inevitable reference to Esquimalt she pointed out the legal obligation of the Navy, ferries, tugboats, cruise ships, and so on, to respond to distress calls. The Coast Guard doesn’t have to come to the aid of these vessels; let the mariners save themselves.
Is she really so ignorant of the proud tradition of her service, so blind to the realities of life on the coast beyond the Strait of Juan de Fuca? Or is she just parroting policy crafted in Ottawa? Has Canada’s search and rescue really come to this?
I believe that the answer is clear. Yes, Canada’s search and rescue really has come to this. Like Cheryl Gallant, the politicians and bureaucrats will pretend into nonexistence their 144-year commitment to the Canadian Coast Guard and its predecessors. They will find better ways to spend their money than in saving Canadian lives at sea. And they will continue to imagine, in the Ottawa River, their perception of life on Canada’s coasts.
(First published in The Northern View, February 16, 2011.)