Closure of coast guard stations a ‘worrisome’ safety risk: union
The union representing Canadian Coast Guard workers is warning that more people will be at risk on the water if the government follows through with the cuts and station closures they foresee over the next year.
The Union of Canadian Transportation Employees (UCTE) expects coast guard stations will be shuttered in Kenora, Ont., Selkirk, Man., and Lake of the Woods, Man., by September. The guard station in Gimli, Man., on Lake Winnipeg is also said to be set to close in the coming year.
“It is worrisome that the needs of individual communities have not been reviewed prior to any announcements being made,” UCTE president Christine Collins told CTV Winnipeg earlier this month.
The union said the closures are because the work no longer falls within the coast guard’s mandate.
In a statement, the Canadian Coast Guard said it will “reduce the patchwork of its services that currently exist on inland waterways” as it invests in “strengthening the navigation system in Canada’s busiest waterways.”
A coast guard spokesperson would not confirm the decision to close the stations to CTV News, saying only that services in the region are under review, and no jobs would be lost.
Many fisherman and recreational boaters rely on the Canadian Coast Guard for navigation, search and rescue, and communication services, among other roles.
Expert sailor Wolfe Smythe told CTV News that the coast guard’s search and rescue capacity is a vital lifeline for boaters who get themselves in too deep.
“I was actually appalled that they are closing the guard station with sort of no warning at all,” he said from the deck of his boat on Lake Winnipeg.
Smythe said he has seen sudden gusts of strong wind turn a calm cruise into a potentially deadly situation without a moment’s notice. He worries about boaters being caught off guard by rough conditions with no one to turn to for help.
“Big winds come up on this lake which could cause problems for people, either inexperienced people that are out on the water (or) the fishers that are out there on a regular basis on open boats,” he said.
Lake Winnipeg is the tenth largest fresh water body in the world. In addition to being a major draw for summer activities, it’s also home to a robust commercial fishing industry. According to the province, the total landed commercial catch from the 2010-2011 season was worth over $16 million.
The prospect of losing the Gimli station has the mayor concerned for those who work in the industry and the thousands of lake-goers that flock to his town every summer.
“We’ve got communities . . . that depend on the coast guard search and rescue, patrolling. Then all of a sudden they pull out?” said Randy Woroniuk. “This is the largest inland harbour for recreational boaters. We have a huge commercial fishing fleet here.”
The Lifesaving Society’s Manitoba branch has also condemned the move.
Meanwhile in British Columbia, the Vancouver-based Canadian Coast Guard dive team is set to be disbanded. The top coast guard officer on the west coast said the money is better spent elsewhere.
“Because the capability only every existed in Vancouver, it was determined that it is not core, and that is why it was reallocated,” said Roger Girouard, assistant commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard.
He expects police and firefighters will take on the underwater rescue duties. The cost-cutting move is expected to save roughly $500,000.
That savings is cold comfort to the brother of a man who died the last time the coast guard’s Vancouver dive team was cut.
Mandip Sandhu’s brother Paul drowned after crashing his vehicle into the Fraser River, a short distance from the coast guard’s Sea Island base. The accident occurred two days after the dive team was cut in 2001.
Sandhu is calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to meet with Vancouver residents to discuss the dive team’s vital emergency response role.
“Half a million dollars, I don’t think that’s too high a price to pay,” he told CTV Vancouver last month.
With a report from CTV’s Manitoba bureau chief Jill Macyshon
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