1 year after inquiry announced, Burton Winters's family hopeful for action soon

One year after the Newfoundland and Labrador government announced there would be an inquiry into search and rescue, there is still no date set — but the lawyer for the family of Burton Winters says they're hopeful the long wait will be over soon.

"I think we're getting closer," says Tommy Williams, the lawyer for the Winters family.

Winters, 14, died after his snowmobile got stuck on sea ice outside of Makkovik, Labrador, in 2012. While there was a ground search underway for the missing teen, it took two days for a military aircraft to be dispatched in the search.

It took a total of three days for his body to be found.

The family renewed its calls for an inquiry late last year, after the release of a national Senate report looking into gaps in search and rescue operations.

Burton will not be lost from their minds and from their hearts. - Tom Williams

The Newfoundland and Labrador government, which had said it was waiting on that report to move forward, announced on Dec. 4, 2018 that there would be an inquiry.

Natalie Jacque, Winters's step-mother, said the family has sought an inquiry because they knew mistakes were made in the 2012 search.

They hope the inquiry can pinpoint at what stage of the search for Winters the mistakes happened so it can be fixed — and ensure it doesn't happen to another family.

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Williams, meanwhile, said the waiting has taken its toll.

"Burton will not be lost from their minds and from their hearts, so every time this issue comes up, it's difficult for them," Williams said.

"I think they'd like to get on with it and get this part behind them and hopefully see improvement in the system."

Scope of inquiry

Later this month, the findings of the province's inquiry into the Muskrat Falls project is due to be completed and released.

Williams pointed out that the government has also committed to an inquiry of Innu children in care.

Despite those ongoing processes, Williams said he sees positive signs the search and rescue inquiry will go ahead soon.

Terry Roberts/CBC

"I do take some confidence that I think we will see it move forward, and we have had participation from government with it, so we're appreciative of that," Williams said.

Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons said that while it is certain that the tragic passing of Burton Winters was the catalyst for the inquiry, the scope of the investigation will be much wider.

"In my opinion, this inquiry is always going to be important and one that's going to be necessary because it's a matter that we deal with every day in our province," Parsons said.

Parsons did not commit to a timeline for when the inquiry will happen, but said the sooner it could move forward, the better.

"We have committed to the inquiry and the inquiry will happen," Parsons said in the House of Assembly Wednesday afternoon. 

He would like to see it happen in 2020.

"The reality is that search and rescue is important today, it's going to be important tomorrow and it's going to be important years and years from now," Parsons said, "so we want to be able to get this right." 

Terms of reference

Right now, Parsons said, the terms of reference for the inquiry are still in the draft phase. 

"The delay has not been just solely based on the provincial government. In fact, the lawyer for the family has indicated he has been working to finalize [the] terms of reference," Parsons said Wednesday. 

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Williams said he has had discussions with the province about those terms and hopes to have some further input on behalf of the family before they are finalized.

"I think the family has to be given credit that they've focused the attention of the province on issues pertaining to search and rescue," Williams said.

"We have requested that the circumstances surrounding his loss be looked into as at least one portion of the inquiry."

Parsons added that the province needs the federal government to formalize its participation in the inquiry, but said he has no doubt that will happen.

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