SAR protest prompts public meeting with Penashue

Alicia Elson
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Residents of Labrador outraged over SAR response to Burton Winters case

Minister Penashue invited the general public to speak with him at the Labrador Friendship Centre after arriving to the scene of a protest in front of the Minister’s office in Happy Valley Goose Bay on Friday. Protestors were challenging the military's response in handling the search effort for Burton Winters.

A protest calling for permanent Search and Rescue service in Labrador turned into an impromptu public meeting with Labrador MP Peter Penashue this afternoon.

About 100 people gathered in front of the Miniser's office in Happy Valley Goose Bay, Feb. 10, waving placards that read “He walked this far...” and “Is my life worth saving?”

The protest was sparked by the death of Makkovik's Burton Winters last week. Fourteen-year-old Winters went missing on Jan. 29 after what was supposed to be a short snowmobile ride. His body was found on sea ice three days later, 19-kilometers from his abandoned snowmobile.

In the days following the tragic incident, information surrounding DND’s response to the calls for search and rescue to the area has resulted in a national public outcry from family, friends and supporters who want to know why the Canadian Forces did not send a SAR team until 48 hours after the boy was reported missing.

The HVGB protest was organized by local residents Kirk Lethbridge and Roxanne Dyson.

“We wanted people of Labrador to come together so we can ensure that something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s child,” said Ms. Dyson.

“We feel that whenever something tragic occurs then we get wind of all the government’s so-called protocols and it’s just not enough for us. We’re hoping we can make a difference.”

“I think it’s time for them to apologize to the family instead of making up all these excuses. The friends and families of Burton Winters are going through a really difficult time right now and they don’t need to hear any more excuses of why search and rescue didn’t come to save him.”

On Wednesday, DND brass explained that mechanical trouble and weather conditions in Makkovik both lead to the delay of SAR aircraft out of Goose Bay joining the search. In addition, they said dispatching a Cormorant helicopter would have left the Maritime SAR fleet shorthanded.

Fiona Anderson, a former resident and teacher of Makkovik, said she attended the protest to support the voices of all of Labrador.

“Like everyone else I am outraged. I know there are rules and laws and protocols to follow but when a young life is in danger you got to put that aside, you’ve got to get out there and do what you can do. And if they were waiting for a call from the RCMP and it didn’t come they should have been calling back to find out what the situation was.

“There’s no way that this Government can let this continue it has to change. Look at all these people they are all voters.

It’s for equality it’s for decency and it’s for sensitivity, accountability and responsibility and we deserve it.”

Lethbridge welcomed the crowd for coming and gave a short speech.

About ten minutes into the rally, Mr. Penashue unexpectedly arrived to his office and observed the protest and listened to concerns.

Lethbridge was at the microphone when Mr. Penashue arrived.

“As the precious minutes and hours ticked by we hear what had happened we heard that search and rescue would not come and we heard different excuses. If a 14-year-old child is not worthy searching for, than what the hell is an emergency?” he asked.

“It’s seems that search and rescue is there for a politician who needs to fly around on personal business but not there for a 14-year-old child in Labrador who is dying of the cold and that is wrong. It’s not good enough for us!”

Following the voice of concern from other individuals in the crowd Mr. Lethbridge then invited Mr. Penashue to the mic.

“This is a very difficult situation, I understand that. I am a father and I am a grandfather so I completely understand the situation in terms of what it would feel like for me. My sympathies and my condolences go out to the family,” Mr. Penashue said to the crowd.

He then offered a “sit-down meeting” at the Labrador Friendship Centre to hear more of their concerns.

Withing minutes, the protesters moved down the street and into the Friendship Centre boardroom.

Penashue would not discuss specific details about the situation, saying answers the DND SAR response were contained in investigation report already completed.

However, about 20 protesters voiced their concerns over the way the search was handled, and the government protocol for dispatching rescue teams.

Gary Mitchell, Ordinary Member for Nunatsiavut for the Lake Melville area and former resident of Makkovik echoed many of the crowd's sentiments, saying “This thing about authority and protocol has to change and immediately. I am not giving up we are going to fight for what we believe in.

“We are frustrated it’s time for action from SAR to change their protocol and give Labrador some recognition and a permanent SAR base here in Labrador.”

The impromptu meeting dissolved after about 40 minutes. Before leaving, Minister Pensahue assured the crowd that he would agree to meeting again with the public in the near future and will be taking the concerns he heard with him to Ottawa.

Following the closing of the meeting Mr. Lethbridge told the Labradorian, “ I think that people power today put some pressure where it needs to be. I think that Minister Penashue and Keith Russell (MHA for Lake Melville) are both aware of what needs to be done and the ball is in their court now to push this issue to what we are looking for which is to have a search and rescue helicopter permanently stationed in Labrador.

“They know what we want and we’ve given them the leeway to do whatever it takes in a reasonable amount of time to come back to us and we will have another meeting at that time.”

Organizations: Canadian Forces, RCMP, Labrador Friendship Centre

Geographic location: Labrador, Makkovik, Goose Bay Happy Valley Lake Melville

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  • Dave Moore
    February 11, 2012 - 11:34

    A closed door "sit-down" is NOT a Public Meeting. Your headline is wrong. As for the comments of the DND officials that assigning a Cormorant Helicopter to the rescue would leave SAR short of vital equipment, then they are admitting that they ARE always short-handed and under-equipped. Time for the DND people to tell their bosses in Ottawa and Calgary that they are not properly equipping a service that Canadian depend on.