Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for St. John's East for providing me with this opportunity to express my esteem for search and rescue services. I also congratulate him on his re-elevation to defence critic. As a member of the national defence committee, I look forward to working with him again.
Coming from British Columbia, I have a unique appreciation of the reliability and efficiency of this service and of the extraordinary work of all those who contribute to it, whether professional or volunteer, in uniform or not.
I will take a moment to thank the RCMP, Kent Harrison Search and Rescue and Chilliwack Search and Rescue, which just yesterday participated in a very difficult, very dangerous recovery effort after a tragic hang-gliding accident in my riding of Chilliwack—Fraser Canyon.
We western Canadians are blessed with a natural environment of exceptional beauty. Enjoying the great outdoors has become a key part of our lifestyle and identity. Western Canada has also become a prime destination for visitors from all over the country and from abroad who want to take advantage of the unparalleled recreational opportunities that we have to offer, activities like skiing, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking or camping, to name just a few. However, while our lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, coastlines and island chains are among the most spectacular in the world, they are not without dangers. This is something that we can easily forget.
We sometimes also forget that our environment can make search and rescue operations particularly challenging. Fortunately, we can rely upon the dedication and expertise of search and rescue professionals. such as the two Canadian Forces SAR techs from 442 Squadron in Comox who parachuted out of a CC-115 to a plane crash site 130 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C. on January 22. Because of their actions and the response of the 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron, all four occupants of the aircraft were found alive.
Not all incidents are that extreme, but I think all of us from the west can think of many incidents where search and rescue services were called upon. Because of that, we appreciate the importance of ensuring the quality of these services. Therefore, I fully understand and share the desire of the hon. member for St. John's East to provide Canadians with the best system of search and rescue services possible.
However, I cannot support the motion that we are debating today. Focusing uniquely on the issue of Canadian Forces' response posture does not accurately reflect the nature of Canada's search and rescue system, nor the specific needs of Canadians.
We have already heard that there is no mandated international norm for response posture. Focusing solely on the Canadian Forces would also be a mistake, because they are only one part of a larger system. What really matters to this government, and what I believe matters to Canadians, is having a search and rescue service that is well suited to the specific challenges of our Canadian environment.
Therefore, in taking part in this debate today, I will speak to some of those particular challenges as well as help Canada's current search and rescue system do a good job of addressing them.
Canada is a uniquely challenging environment for search and rescue. As we all know, we live in an extremely vast country, with a land mass of almost 10 million square kilometres and the world's longest coastline. However, Canada's area of responsibility for search and rescue extends even further than that, totalling approximately 18 million square kilometres when the ocean regions for which we are responsible are included. Within this space, a relatively small population is dispersed over great distances. Needless to say, a country as vast as ours contains enormous geographical diversity.
What is more, the Canadian climate can be very hostile, with temperatures ranging from 35°C to -50.
Taken together, all of these characteristics make Canada unique in the world when it comes to search and rescue and to inherent challenges of trying to reach people in distress, of trying to cover vast distances quickly and then to locating and assisting people in hard to reach places and often under difficult conditions.
Such a unique environment calls for an equally unique search and rescue system. Fortunately, Canada has just such a system, one that is specifically tailored to meet the needs of Canadians and one that is very successful at quickly responding to emergencies and saving lives, at no cost to the user, I should add.
I will now take a few moments to explain that system so as to ensure the motion before the House is taken in the proper context.
Given the particular conditions and challenges of our country that I have just described, no single organization, not even one as versatile and responsive as the Canadian Forces, could possibly cover every inch of our territory all of the time.
Canada's search and rescue system is based on extensive collaboration and co-operation between numerous different departments, agencies, levels of government and other actors. This includes other federal departments and agencies, provincial and territorial governments, municipal and local organizations, commercial companies and volunteer organizations.
Co-operation among these various stakeholders helps ensure that, in every part of the country, local knowledge and expertise can be harnessed in support of search and rescue efforts. It also ensures that people and resources already in the area can provide as fast and effective a response as possible.
Of course, none of these organizations can operate in isolation. Instead, they work together and support one another within the framework of our comprehensive and collaborative approach. Within this context, the Canadian Forces play a crucial role in responding to many different emergencies but are by no means the only provider of search and rescue services. Together with the Canadian Coast Guard, they coordinate the country's response to air and sea incidents by operating the Joint Rescue Coordination Centres in Victoria, Trenton and Halifax. With respect to the provision of air search and rescue services, the Canadian Forces have primary responsibility in cases of downed aircraft and are responsible for providing air support to the Canadian Coast Guard in emergencies at sea.
However, the response to search and rescue incidents on land is different. In cases of ground emergencies, provincial or territorial governments lead the response, including the provision of air services, while the Canadian Forces' role is solely to provide assistance if and when it is requested by the local authorities. It makes perfect sense to rely primarily on local organizations, police forces, volunteer associations, commercial companies et cetera in cases of ground SAR because they have the knowledge, the resources, the expertise and the experience required to respond in the fastest, most appropriate way.
Of the approximately 9,000 search and rescue incidents reported annually in Canada, military assets are deployed for approximately 1,100 and help to save an average of 1,200 lives each year. However, operational statistics only tell part of the story when it comes to this government's commitment to search and rescue. Beyond the responses themselves, the Department of National Defence and, indeed, the government more broadly are actively engaged on a number of fronts to help improve the preparation and coordination of stakeholders as well as the availability of information and public education about the dangers of the Canadian environment.
Each year, the government invests millions through the SAR new initiatives fund to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, economy and innovation of search and rescue response and prevention activities across Canada. On the international stage, Canada also continues to work with like-minded nations to discuss and review search and rescue efforts. For example, last year we organized and hosted the first ever gathering of specialists from eight Arctic Council nations, in Whitehorse. This year, we welcomed the defence chiefs of those same countries, in Goose Bay, to encourage closer co-operation in dealing with emergencies in the Arctic.
Through all of these programs and initiatives, the government is consistently taking steps to improve the search and rescue service in Canada not just by improving response times but also by improving the coordination and co-operation of stakeholders, by helping develop new technologies and practices so that authorities can be notified of emergencies faster and, perhaps most importantly of all, by providing funding to improve the availability of information and public education on the hazards of our Canadian environment so that fewer of these emergencies occur in the first place. We do all of this because we are committed to the quality of our search and rescue system.
Although I am happy to see that the opposition shares in this commitment, I cannot support the motion before us today.
For the reasons I have just described, I ask the opposition to expand its perspective beyond the narrow issue of military response postures to the broader realities of search and rescue in Canada and to support this government in continuing to find ways to invest our resources where they can make a real difference in the safety and survival of Canadians.