Newfoundland and Labrador government establishes public inquiry into search and rescue

·3 min read

The long-promised public inquiry into search and rescue operations in Newfoundland and Labrador was launched Thursday.

Justice and Public Safety Minister Steve Crocker formally established the $1.5-million inquiry, which he said will look different than past commissions of inquiry, such as the recent one on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. It will be more policy based as opposed to investigative, Crocker said, and will be smaller and more focused.

“It will examine the organization, the operations of ground search and rescue in the province, with a final report making recommendations on how to improve that system,” he said at a news conference.

The 2012 death of 14-year-old Burton Winters after he went snowmobiling near Makkovik spurred the inquiry, which is expected to last about six months.

Winters' body was found three days after he was reported missing. Search and rescue helicopters were not called to look for him until two days after he was reported missing, which caused widespread concern.

Crocker said it is impossible to deny how the case exposed gaps in the search and rescue system and spurred the inquiry.

“None of us know when we will require the support of search and rescue teams,” he said. “But we hope that if we need them that service will be there and be adequate and prepared to respond in a timely manner.”

The inquiry was a Liberal campaign promise in 2015 and was announced on Dec. 4, 2018.

Retired provincial court judge James Igloliorte, originally from Hopedale, will lead the inquiry as commissioner, and said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed things down a little, but they have been working behind the scenes doing consultation and research since last summer.

The inquiry won’t focus on any specific cases, but a hearing will be held in Makkovik involving members of Winters' family and others who knew him.

Igloliorte said they want to frame the examinations and the recommendations as being the Burton Winters Inquiry, and people were affected by the Inuk teen’s death, with a lot of questions arising about search and rescue.

“We will be in Makkovik and allow the entire community to speak to us if they wish, and we will make sure that, insofar as we can, we will answer any questions they may have through the presentation of various witnesses to participate in the discussions,” he said.

Igloliorte said they have already been consulting with the Indigenous groups of Labrador and expect them to be a part of the process.

He said due to the relationship the Indigenous people of Labrador have with the land and outdoor activities, they are more at risk, and that will be recognized in this inquiry and report.

They will work with a number of groups, Igloliorte said, including the public, various search and rescue organizations, and police forces.

The inquiry will be largely comprised of informal hearings, but may also include research studies, interviews and surveys, and written submissions.

Evan Careen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram