Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to present this opposition day motion on behalf of my party, seconded by the member for , who has taken a great interest in this matter and of course is extremely familiar with the local circumstances in the area of Vancouver and indeed of all of British Columbia.
I am dealing with three different closures here, and we will have speakers going into detail on each of them. My riding of is very near to the marine rescue coordinating centre in St. John's. There is one in Quebec City, and the member for will speak to that issue a little later. In dealing with the Kitsilano Coast Guard station in British Columbia, we will also hear directly from the member for .
I should say that I am splitting my time with the member for .
I will take a moment to first of all to sadly acknowledge the deaths of two Coast Guard auxiliary volunteers who died on Sunday in British Columbia at the Skookumchuck Narrows in the Sunshine Coast, near the entrance to Sechelt Island. They were engaged in a training mission and, very sadly, lost their lives when their boat capsized. It is with great sadness that we acknowledge this and pass on our sympathies to the families and friends of those involved who, acting as volunteers, took great risks and unfortunately and sadly lost their lives in this incident.
What we are dealing with here underscores the great seriousness with which search and rescue should be taken and needs to be taken by the government. The motion is aimed at urging the government to recognize that the saving of lives has to be the top priority for the Coast Guard search and rescue services, and the closure of these three operations merely to save the cost of 36 jobs—12 in St. John's, 12 in Quebec City and 12 in Kitsilano Coast Guard station—is gross neglect of the top priority of the Coast Guard services.
Sad to say, the government and the have downplayed the importance of these operations when, for example, the issue of the marine rescue coordinating centre in St. John's and Quebec was talked about in terms of the vital necessity of having operations located where the coordinators of these rescues were engaged in local knowledge of the people at sea, the geography of the area, and in both cases, understanding directly the people and the communities they are dealing with.
In the case of Quebec City, the language is French, but it is not simply the French language: it is the language of French as it is spoken in that specific area. I am obviously not an expert in the French dialects of Quebec, but I am given to understand that people in Quebec do not all speak the same version of French or the same dialect, and it takes some experience, knowledge and understanding to get what is being said.
I do know that in my own province of Newfoundland and Labrador, not everybody speaks English the same way I or others do. We have been told by the marine rescue coordinators that it is very difficult sometimes to understand what is being said, even though they know the accents and the dialects and how people speak in one part of the province and another. They sometimes have to play the emergency tapes several times to catch what someone is saying, because they understand that in a rescue situation, an emergency situation at sea, people are panicked. They are worried about losing their lives and speak based on their panic and their need to get out what they have to say. Understanding them at the other end takes that kind of local knowledge.
They also know the coastline that they are dealing with. They know the geography. They know there are one or two dozen seal coves in Newfoundland. They use clues to figure out where they are. Understanding the place names is very complex in a place like Newfoundland and Labrador. They are people with that experience, and that is why they are there.
In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, the marine rescue co-ordinating centre handles about 500 rescues per year. There are about 2,000 calls, 500 of which are actual at-sea situations of peril. They are the coordinators.
The , incomprehensibly, kept referring to them as call centres, as if they were some sort of call centres that could be outsourced to Italy, or India, which is where unfortunately certain medical calls were outsourced after the centre closed in April.
It is not a call centre. It is a rescue co-ordinating centre with trained people who are mariners. They have experience at sea. They know the Coast Guard ships that are involved. They know what assets are available. They are dedicated to making sure that rescues are effectively co-ordinated.
In fact, when the defence committee was in St. John's in February 2010 as part of a study on search and rescue, we visited this marine rescue co-ordinating centre and were told directly by national Coast Guard officials the reason the centre was there. By the way, the Quebec centre and the St. John's centre were installed in 1977 for this reason. They are there because of the necessity of local knowledge, such as the circumstances of the currents, the geography, the people and the language. It was important enough to make sure those centres were there.
In the case of British Columbia, and my colleague from will talk about that in some detail, there are 12 people who provide direct rescue services 24 hours a day. They will be in a rescue cutter within one to two minutes of a call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That is being replaced.
The minister said that we do not need to worry about that because the Coast Guard auxiliary are going to look after it. The coast guard auxiliary is miles away. I spoke to some of the individuals who work at this station. There are three on duty at any one time. They provide 24-hour service. They are in the water within one to two minutes.
To get to that very same point, the Coast Guard auxiliary would take about 40 minutes after receiving a call. There is another station on the other side of the peninsula by the airport, but it is 17 nautical miles away.
That service is being provided. My colleague will provide a lot of numbers. We heard them at a meeting in British Columbia last Thursday. We heard the passion with which people spoke. They said that lives would be lost. It is the same message we are hearing from Newfoundland and Labrador, from those who know the circumstances.
There was a letter to the editor written by a former minister of fisheries in the Conservative government, James McGrath, my predecessor in St. John's East. He was complaining about this decision, how wrong it is and how it will increase the risk at sea and possibly lead to the loss of life.
It is an extremely important issue in the communities of Newfoundland and Labrador where we rely on the sea to make a living, where we have ferry boats sailing all the time. There are half a million passenger trips between St. John's and Bell Island on a ferry boat. There is the gulf ferry service. People go back and forth to the oil rigs daily and hourly. There are thousands of fishermen at sea working on boats 24 hours a day all throughout the year.
This is an extremely important service. There will be a reduction of that service. With those three operations going, there were six rescue coordinators available to do the work for this huge area of responsibility, which includes Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Now there will be three people to do the job. That is not enough. It is very complex. It involves life-and-death decisions being made all the time.
This decision has to be and ought to be reversed for the sake of the lives and safety of the people who need this service.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the motion by the hard-working member for , and I am happy to second the motion.
I am pleased that the member has brought this important motion before Parliament so we can debate the Conservative government's short-sighted and reckless cuts to the Coast Guard search and rescue services right across this country.
The closures are a result of a massive $56 million in cuts proposed to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Because of these cuts, coastal communities will see the closures of the St. John's marine search and rescue coordination centres, as well as the closure of the Quebec marine rescue centre.
The cuts will also result in the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station in Vancouver. The Kitsilano Coast Guard station is one of the most active in the country, servicing approximately 300 distress calls per year in Canada's largest port. Most of these calls deal with serious emergency situations, such as a person in water, medical responses, suicide attempts and fires.
There is no question the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station will increase response times, as the next nearest rescue boat would then have to travel 17 nautical miles from Sea Island in Richmond to Vancouver.
Last week the member for and I held a packed emergency town hall meeting at the Jericho Sailing Centre. We heard a variety of perspectives, but all attendees were in agreement that the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station was a huge mistake that would put people's lives at risk. Many citizens showed up to voice their concerns about the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. Those in attendance included recreational boaters, kayakers, yacht owners and club members, representatives from labour unions, retired Coast Guard members, Coast Guard employees, Vancouver parks board commissioners, environmentalists and residents of Vancouver.
One of our panellists at the event, Mike Kelly, a retired captain and 37-year veteran of the Coast Guard, stated:
|| The coast guard is disaster driven. Bases don't fall out of the sky because they have got too much money. They only fall out of the sky because somebody paid for it in blood, and it is always blood on the deck before anything gets done. We must not pay that price again.
We also heard from Mike Cotter, the general manager of the Jericho Sailing Centre Association. He brought up some excellent points. He told the audience that over five million people travel through the Vancouver harbour every year, and billions of dollars' worth of cargo travel through the First Narrows.
He also stated that the Vancouver harbour is the busiest port in the country.
According to Mr. Cotter, the Kitsilano Coast Guard has the ability to respond to an emergency in this region within six minutes. If British Columbians had to rely on the Coast Guard auxiliary for an emergency, according to Mr. Cotter it would take at least 45 minutes for a response from Horseshoe Bay and 50 minutes from the Deep Cove auxiliary to reach the First Narrows. He wondered why the Conservative government would not come up with the $900,000 to ensure the safety of people and products travelling through this busy port of entry.
Both the Vancouver parks board and Vancouver city council have passed motions opposing the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. The B.C. NDP opposition leader has written to encourage all B.C. MPs to speak out and oppose this closure. The premier of British Columbia has also urged the federal government to reverse course.
Yet the government refuses to listen to the very people who know the region, the waters and the services that are required to keep people safe.
We held the town hall meeting to give people an opportunity to voice their concerns and anger. The Conservative government so far has refused to listen, despite mounting outrage. We promised to bring the people's message back to Ottawa.
One of the attendees at the meeting was Katrina. She works in insurance for the yachting industry. She asked what impact this decision would have on insurance costs.
Since then, she has written an open letter, and it is excellent. I want to quote from that letter. She said:
|| Weighing shades of grey and ethical dilemmas which cut across political, moral and industrial divides is a hobby I take great pleasure in pursuing. These sorts of dilemmas in Canada are many and complex; our ability and willingness to navigate these concerns and stay united despite our differences somehow defines us as Canadians. However, I assure you wholeheartedly, my fellow Canadians, that the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station is not a decision that falls into this category. There is no political, economic, social, moral, or nautical justification which would warrant the closing of this base; not one. Any politician suggesting there is has misunderstood grossly some or all of the reasons which compel this location to remain open. If this station is closed lives will be lost, full stop. Any politician suggesting otherwise is in grave error and in gross neglect of their duty as a public servant. At no point were they elected to put human lives at risk; at no point will the sea bow down and say, “I will quell my force in obedience to Ottawa”. At no point will one human life lost at sea be forgotten conveniently in order to make this issue go away.
Those are powerful words.
One message we heard repeatedly is that the protection of the public must be the top priority for any government. Everyone was adamant that the Conservative government must not balance the budget at the expense of marine safety. British Columbians are also upset that, once again, the government has failed to consult them on a major decision, such as shutting down the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station.
After assurances from the Minister of Canadian Heritage, who is the lead B.C. Conservative MP, that a broad consultation had taken place, we soon discovered that the department had only consulted with the Department of National Defence. This lack of consultation does not instill a sense of confidence that this short-sighted decision is in the best interest of British Columbians. The choruses of disapproval from people who are active in marine safety, who have the local knowledge of the area and know the level of service required, is growing.
If the government had taken the time to consult, it would have heard that on the May long weekend alone the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station saved nine lives, or that so far this year the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station has responded to 70 calls and saved 55 lives.
If the government had bothered to ask Fred Moxey, retired commander of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station, he would have told them, “Very simply, lives will be lost.”
Attendees at the town hall all wanted to know how the government could justify relying on volunteers to protect citizens in the water. They wondered who exactly was consulted about this. They wondered who was consulted when the decision was made to use the hovercraft and volunteers to replace trained professionals.
People do not trust the government on this issue. They are shocked and appalled that this decision was reached without public consultation, particularly with people who are active in marine safety and have the local knowledge. Also, the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia were not consulted.
Marine safety should be a high priority for the government. The federal government has a responsibility to provide this essential service. To shut down the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station is an abdication of their duties.
The message from the town hall meeting was clear: the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station creates an unacceptable risk for Canadians. I urge the government to reconsider this reckless cut to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station, and keep it open.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to this issue raised by my hon. colleague, the member of Parliament for , regarding the consolidation of the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue services, and to correct much of the misinformation that I have been hearing so far.
Please let me begin by expressing, on behalf of the and the Canadian Coast Guard, our commitment to ensuring maritime safety throughout Canada.
The recent announcements relating to the Coast Guard search and rescue program are a product of our fiscal responsibility, as well as a positive step towards a more streamlined and efficient maritime search and rescue program. I can assure members that the decision to consolidate search and rescue services, and the consolidation of search and rescue services in Greater Vancouver, in particular, were made with careful consideration to public safety.
When Canadians went to the polls on May 2 of last year, they delivered a strong and clear mandate to us, the newly elected government. Canadians chose public safety balanced with fiscal responsibility. Canadians asked that the government provide the same service at reduced cost, and this is what the Department of Fisheries and Oceans along with all other departments, have set in motion.
My colleagues and I are in agreement that we will deliver on this mandate, by ensuring the Canadian Coast Guard is providing effective and efficient services in the best interests of all Canadians while ensuring that safety is not compromised. Saving lives remains a top priority for this government, and indeed for all federal departments and agencies.
For those who do not know, the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue mandate is to coordinate search and rescue missions within the three search and rescue regions and international waters, provide vessels to respond to search and rescue incidents in areas of the Canadian Coast Guard responsibility and provide communications and alerting services. Although the Coast Guard ensures search and rescue coverage is provided in areas of federal responsibility, it does so within a system of available resources. This means there are numerous players that can be called upon to respond to a search and rescue incident. Moreover, Coast Guard vessels may not be the most appropriate asset to respond to a mariner in distress, depending on the proximity.
The search and rescue system is, “The combined facilities, equipment and procedures established in each search and rescue region to provide the response to search and rescue...”. This systems approach allows Coast Guard search and rescue coordinators to task the closest available asset to respond to an incident on the water.
Canada is a signatory to the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, and over the years we have built strong partnerships, both internationally and domestically, to deliver one of the most effective maritime search and rescue services in the world. The Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue record speaks for itself. On any given day, it saves eight lives. In any given year, it coordinates responses to over 4,000 maritime search and rescue calls across the country.
The Canadian Coast Guard fleet includes 116 vessels, plus one additional training vessel and 22 helicopters. This fleet provides support to search and rescue, with 41 station-based search and rescue vessels or lifeboat stations that operate year-round, or during the peak season of April to November in Quebec and the central and Arctic regions. There are also six patrol-mode vessels, which provide offshore search and rescue services, and other large Coast Guard vessels that can be called upon.
Across the country, the Coast Guard also operates 24 inshore rescue boats that augment services during the busy summer boating season, typically from the end of May to the beginning of September. In fact, the inshore rescue boats handle up to 914 total search and rescue incidents in a three-month period.
The consolidation of the marine rescue sub-centres in St. John's and Quebec City with the joint rescue coordination centres in Halifax and Trenton will facilitate incident response coordination by co-locating both air and maritime personnel in a single rescue centre. Co-location will provide for closer communication between the Canadian Coast Guard and Canadian Forces personnel, ultimately to the benefit of Canadians.
All centres are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round, by Canadian Coast Guard maritime search and rescue coordinators, who are responsible for the planning, coordination, conduct and control of maritime search and rescue operations. These services will continue to be available in both official languages. As a result of improving existing language profiles at the Halifax and Trenton centres to meet the needs of francophone mariners, bilingual capacity will actually be increased above the levels currently in place at those centres.
All facets of consolidation have been considered, planned for and addressed through a solid implementation plan, which will cover all operational requirements and lays the groundwork for a successful transition. I am pleased to report that the marine rescue sub-centre in St. John's was successfully consolidated on April 25 into the joint rescue coordination centre in Halifax. On-the-job training of new coordinators is continuing, and levels of service are being maintained.
Efforts to consolidate the Quebec sub-centre into both Halifax and Trenton are well underway, in co-operation with our partners at the Canadian Forces. We expect to see a successful transition in Quebec, as we saw with the consolidation of the St. John's centre on April 25, perhaps by the spring of next year. As we have always said, this transition will have no impact on existing search and rescue coordination service standards.
The Canadian Coast Guard, on behalf of the , is responsible for the effective and efficient use of federally supported maritime search and rescue resources to respond to search and rescue calls. Collectively, the Canadian maritime search and rescue system saves 95% of lives at risk annually. These results could not be achieved without a system of resources to call upon.
Maritime search and rescue in Canada continues to require a network of assets and resources to work together to provide coverage, and capability to respond to mariners in distress or potential distress. These resources include Coast Guard's lifeboats, inshore rescue boats, large Coast Guard vessels, and Coast Guard auxiliary units, which are reimbursed through contribution agreements.
Search and rescue coordinators also have access to and are able to mobilize other on-water resources, such as police and fire vessels. In addition to these responders, any vessel close enough to provide assistance to a vessel in distress can be called upon under the Canada Shipping Act and international law. These are referred to as “vessels of opportunity”.
I would like to take this opportunity to specifically address the concerns surrounding the planned closure of the Kitsilano lifeboat station in Vancouver harbour.
It is important for Canadians to understand that Vancouver is currently the only major port in Canada with a Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat station. In fact, in addition to a lifeboat station, it has the Sea Island hovercraft station. Search and rescue services in other major Canadian ports, such as Victoria, Halifax and Montreal, are provided by a combination of responders that, for the most part, do not include Coast Guard lifeboats. The Kitsilano station is also only 17 nautical miles away from the Sea Island hovercraft station. No two other Coast Guard lifeboat stations are located so closely together. Typically, the radius of coverage is at least 50 nautical miles.
Although it cannot be denied that there is a high volume of traffic in the area and a high number of search and rescue incidents, many of these incidents are humanitarian and, therefore, outside of the Coast Guard's primary service mandate; by that I mean that they sometimes run out of gas, they find themselves at low tide or on a sand bar or those kinds of things.
The Canadian Coast Guard carefully considers the available response resources in a given area and their combined capacity and capability to meet local search and rescue needs. With respect to Kitsilano, there are five Coast Guard auxiliary units in the area, as well as local partners and numerous vessels of opportunity. These are valuable resources that contribute to the search and rescue system in the area.
The Kitsilano station responded to approximately 200 maritime search and rescue incidents in 2010. Of these, approximately 75% were non-distress and 25% were distress. It is true that, due to its 365 days a year operations, the Kitsilano station has one of the highest cumulative workloads among lifeboat stations in Canada. However, the intensity of its workload is not significantly different from other search and rescue stations.
When only comparing search and rescue incidents occurring during peak summer months there are inshore rescue boat stations in the country with higher workloads than Kitsilano. For example, the Oka inshore rescue boat station in Quebec responded to over 130 search and rescue incidents in 2010, which is significantly higher than the Kitsilano caseload during the same months, which was approximately 75.
In addition, Kitsilano has traditionally been used as the primary responder to search and rescue cases in the Vancouver area, but there are multiple resources in the area. A better utilization of search and rescue partners will lead to a more even distribution of workload.
It should be noted that the province of British Columbia has the highest number of federally funded search and rescue resources in Canada with 12 Coast Guard search and rescue stations, 3 inshore rescue boat stations, 61 Coast Guard auxiliary units and 2 offshore search and rescue vessels. It has been determined that the best mix of resources to provide search and rescue response in the Vancouver area include the addition of an inshore rescue boat in Vancouver harbour, the Coast Guard's hovercraft at Sea Island, the strengthening of the Coast Guard auxiliary presence, local emergency responders and, as always, vessels of opportunity.
I would like to address the benefits of some of these Coast Guard resources in more detail, starting with the addition of an inshore rescue boat in the Vancouver harbour. This seems to be a detail often excluded from conversations surrounding the closure of Kitsilano.
It has been determined that the addition of an inshore rescue boat in Vancouver harbour, operating during the peak summer months from the May long weekend to the September long weekend, would, if the sole responder, though that is highly unlikely, be able to cover 41% of Kitsilano's total yearly workload. The inshore rescue boat station will be strategically located in Vancouver harbour aiding with response to mariners in distress in this high-traffic area during busy summer months.
The Sea Island hovercraft will be another resource at the disposal of search and rescue. There have been concerns voiced about whether Sea Island's hovercraft will be available for search and rescue taskings in the Vancouver area due to its use performing aids to navigation functions. I can assure the House that the availability of primary search and rescue assets to perform search and rescue missions will not be affected by aids to navigation duties.
In the last five years, the hovercraft at Sea Island has spent less than one day a month performing aids to navigation duties and search and rescue will always have the priority.
Over the coming months, the Canadian Coast Guard will be contracting out more of its buoy work, allowing search and rescue resources, including the hovercraft, to focus more on safety missions.
The two hovercrafts at Sea Island are the most capable search and rescue hovercrafts in the world. The hovercraft provides a large, stable platform that offers high speeds, up to 35 to 40 knots, and endurance. The hovercraft is capable of operating safely and effectively and it can be under way within three to five minutes of receiving a search and rescue call.
The new hovercraft currently under construction in the United Kingdom to replace the Penac will be equipped with an updated system and is scheduled for delivery in autumn 2013. The Sea Island hovercrafts have capacity to take on additional taskings in the greater Vancouver area.
Another important asset to the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue system is its dedicated partners from the auxiliary. I know the members opposite demean the auxiliary, but I will give them some facts. I will reiterate that the search and rescue system relies on this network of resources to save lives and the Coast Guard auxiliary makes a significant contribution to search and rescue each day. Canadians ought to be thanking it for the good work that it does.
The Canadian Coast Guard manages $4.9 million in contribution funds to the Coast Guard auxiliaries to support federal search and rescue activities and initiatives. These dedicated volunteers include professional fishers and other experienced boaters who share a common goal and desire to save lives. On average, Coast Guard auxiliary nationally responds to 25% of all maritime search and rescue incidents. Specifically, Coast Guard auxiliary Pacific, now known as Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, responds to about 400 incidents a year and its units are the sole responder to 280 incidents annually. The Pacific auxiliary has the highest membership in Canada with 1,115 members.
Auxiliary members in the Pacific region undergo extensive certification and training prior to becoming a trainee crew member on a search and rescue mission, including training in an advanced rescue vessel simulator. They must successfully complete additional testing and at-sea training prior to becoming a full crew member and are encouraged to continue completing higher levels of certification. The Pacific auxiliary has a fast reaction time averaging 19 minutes.
There are five 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week auxiliary stations serving the Vancouver area, two of which, Howe Sound and Indian Arm, are newly equipped with 37-foot search and rescue vessels capable of withstanding 50 knot winds, 5 metre seas and are rollover tested. The Delta and Crescent Beach auxiliary stations will be putting new vessels into service this fall and Richmond station is equipped with three vessels, including a new 30-foot cabin vessel. Collectively, these five auxiliary units responded to 112 maritime search and rescue incidents in 2010. Of these, 32 were distress incidents and 80 were non-distress incidents.
In order to ensure a smooth transition of safety services in the Vancouver harbour, discussion with our municipal and local partners have begun, as well as an increase in additional funding to the Pacific auxiliary. When all measures are put in place and the Coast Guard determines that safe services can be assured, the Kitsilano station will be closed. This is currently scheduled to be around the spring of 2013. It is important to understand that no one resource will be expected to undertake the entire caseload of Kitsilano, rather, many partners will work collectively to maintain the high level of service currently provided.
I want to point out that a similar mix of resources is used in other major ports. For example, Victoria harbour, which is another very busy harbour, utilizes as part of its search and rescue team one docked fast rescue craft, one Coast Guard auxiliary unit, a Pacific coast pilot vessel, the Victoria police and fire department vessels and, finally, the RCMP border integrity unit, but no Coast Guard station nearby.
In the Victoria area, over a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the Coast Guard auxiliary units responded to 66% of the cases while the Coast Guard search and rescue vessels responded to only 20% of the cases.
A different mix of resources proves effective in Halifax harbour with one large Coast Guard vessel, a small DFO science vessel, a Coast Guard fast rescue craft, an inshore rescue boat during the summer months of May to September, fire and police vessels, pilot boats, Halifax Port Corporation work boats and other vessels of opportunity.
Montreal harbour is equipped with one inshore rescue boat from June till September, seven Coast Guard auxiliary units and two Montreal Fire Department fast rescue crafts. There are three other municipal fire department fast rescue crafts outside of the harbour limits that could also respond if necessary.
The point I am making is that each region, port or harbour utilizes a different mix of resources for their search and rescue needs and yet each is effective. Thus, the best mix of resources for Vancouver harbour has been identified.
The Canadian Coast Guard is a national and international leader in maritime safety and the Coast Guard search and rescue program is among the best in the world. As such, the Coast Guard continually strives to provide outstanding maritime services to Canadians and improve upon service delivery whenever possible.
Finally, the Canadian Coast Guard remains committed to ensuring maritime safety in the Vancouver area, as well as in the rest of Canada. We recognize the critical importance of these safety services and I can assure members that the Coast Guard's number one priority remains safety.