Search-and-rescue centre falls victim to budget cuts

One of the first things Stephen Harper did after his Conservatives won minority power in 2006 was restore a federal weather station to Gander, N.L., that had been moved to Halifax.

A Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter

A Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter

OTTAWA — One of the first things Stephen Harper did after his Conservatives won minority power in 2006 was restore a federal weather station to Gander, N.L., that had been moved to Halifax.

“The closure may have saved the Liberal government a few dollars, but Newfoundland and Labrador have had to suffer the consequences,” Harper said on April 12, 2006, in Gander.

Now, armed with his first majority, one of the first things the Conservatives are doing is to move a search-and-rescue centre out of St. John’s, N.L., to Halifax.

“We received a strong mandate from Canadians to implement our budget proposals and deficit-reduction measures,” Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

“The decision to close call centres will save taxpayers dollars without impacting the safety of people.”

Search-and-rescue co-ordination currently run out of regional offices in St. John’s and Quebec City will be shifted to Halifax and Trenton, Ont., as Fisheries and Oceans seeks to come up with $56 million in savings this year.

Ashfield said technology now permits all emergency calls to be routed to a central location, while “existing search-and-rescue helicopters and rescue vessels will remain where they are currently based.”

Outside the Commons, Ashfield said the cuts would involve 12 “call centre” employees in St. John’s and 12 in Quebec City.

The move is just one of a series of federal cuts that have emerged since the May 2 election gave the Conservatives 166 seats and a clear parliamentary majority.

The current cuts don’t begin to address the additional $4 billion in annual savings the Conservatives say they will find in future years —yet they’re already raising howls of outrage from critics.

Tom Hann, a St. John’s councillor whose neighbour died at sea, said he’s astounded by the insensitivity of the search-and-rescue decision.

“Hundreds if not thousands pass through the shipping lanes around our province daily. People here … have the ability to react within a shorter response time,” Hann said in a release.

“Closing the centre means the effectiveness of search and rescue will be drastically diminished.”

The St. John’s call centre deals with more than 600 incidents every year involving thousands of people in the fishing and offshore industries.

Philip Toone, a newly elected New Democrat from Quebec, told the Commons the move is designed “to save money rather than lives.”

And Ryan Cleary, the new federal NDP member for St. John’s-Mount Pearl, recalled the words of Ottawa-area Conservative Cheryl Gallant, who told a defence committee hearing in February that “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’s words, at a hearing in St. John’s, raised a storm of protest and were called “frankly incomprehensible” by Harper himself.

“Nobody realized that this would actually become Conservative government policy,” Cleary told the Commons on Wednesday.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the St. John’s and Quebec City cuts begin to illustrate that “you can’t take this much money out of the system without having an effect.

“The rhetoric .. that this is all about cutting a little bit of fat here and there, that’s not really a very realistic sense of what’s at stake here,” said Rae.

And NDP fisheries critic Jack Harris made a direct link between the safety of Canadians and continuing Conservative corporate tax cuts worth billions of dollars in lost revenue.

“We’ve got governments trying to save money on the backs of services to the people,” said Harris.

“You know when this government decides to spend a billion-plus dollars on the corporate tax cuts — and then says we have to balance the budget — well, this is what they’re doing. Their corporate tax cuts are being paid for the reduction in services.”

Critics who are crying foul over the Conservative cost-cutting measure might hark back to Harper’s own words from his 2006 weather station reversal.

The prime minister called the Liberal weather station transfer “a real danger to public safety” that affected the “thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who work offshore.”

“These men and women have to contend with some of the harshest conditions in the Atlantic on a good day,” Harper said in Gander.

“On the bad days, raging winds and frigid swelling waters pose a grave danger to their personal safety. This is a reality that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know only too well.”