N.L. asks federal government for 'immediate' improvements to Labrador search and rescue

Labrador Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster says the provincial government is following up on recommendations made by the provincial inquiry into ground search and rescue operations. (John Pike/CBC - image credit)
Labrador Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster says the provincial government is following up on recommendations made by the provincial inquiry into ground search and rescue operations. (John Pike/CBC - image credit)
John Pike/CBC
John Pike/CBC

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is turning up the pressure on its federal counterpart for better search and rescue resources for Labrador.

In a media release Wednesday, the province asked the federal government to take "immediate action" in improving federal search and rescue operations in the Big Land.

Labrador Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster said Friday the statement was about following up on the 17 recommendations made by the provincial public inquiry into ground search and rescue operations, in its report released in November 2021.

"This statement is applying pressure for the federal government to come forward and address some of the gaps that were identified in the inquiry that was just finished," Dempster said.

"We have around 9,000 kilometres of coastline on the island, for example, and we have more than 17,000 kilometres of coastline around Labrador and we have no resources based in Labrador."

Dempster is leading a group of provincial cabinet ministers and Labrador leaders to Ottawa in February to meet with federal ministers about the province's search and rescue concerns.

Discussions have already been held with the federal members about operational issues on the coast of Labrador and the need to establish air and marine resources for the region. The report recommends that federal government helicopter resources be made available to support ground search and rescue operations with equal priority to their support for air and marine search and rescue operations.

An alternative recommendation is for the province to contract air assets to address the gap.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

"We're too familiar in Labrador with loss of life, the heartbreak that comes with that," said Dempster, pointing to Burton Winters, a 14-year-old boy who froze to death in 2012 after getting lost while snowmobiling, as well the fishing vessel Island Lady, which went missing off Mary's Harbour — coincidentally, while the search and rescue inquiry was ongoing.

"We have momentum going and we're not giving up this time."

The province also allocated about $1.8 million in this year's budget to boost funding for the provincial search and rescue association.

Added to the team

The Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation ground search and rescue team joined the umbrella provincial association this year, under the condition that it can go to work without waiting for a call from the RCMP.

Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association teams do not self-deploy. Rather, they are deployed by a policing agency that has jurisdiction.

"The agreement we made with the provincial SAR is that we don't have to wait for any calls, especially when a new person is lost or in distress," said Jack Andrew, co-ordinator of the Sheshatshiu ground search and rescue team.

"When we get a distress call from them we just have to call the RCMP and let them know where we're going and how many people we're taking."

Six of Andrew's 30 team members have since been nationally and provincially certified. Thirteen more are awaiting training while the group raises the necessary funding.

By joining the association, the Sheshatshiu team also gets insurance, something Andrew said was important to his fellow members.

"We didn't have insurance in the beginning and we took a lot of risks," he said.

"There's a lot of risk for our group but now we do have insurance and everybody is covered."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador