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The Politics of SAR in the North

Edward Campbell

Army.ca Myth
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Prof. Michael Byers (UBC) is not exactly a friend of the military but he something of an authority on the Arctic and this opinion piece, reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act from today’s Globe and Mail, is bound to provoke some discussion, not least from Northerners:

An icy SOS, our tepid response
Search and rescue capability must be a manifestation of Canada's Arctic sovereignty

Michael Byers

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010

The rescue of an Inuit hunter near Resolute, Nunavut, has once again exposed limitations in Canada's search and rescue capabilities.

David Idlout easily survived three days at -30 Celsius after the ice floe he was travelling on broke away from shore. Equipped with a rifle, warm clothes and thousands of years of traditional knowledge, he was as comfortable as a city dweller on a broken-down bus.

But with the ice drifting south into the Northwest Passage, nobody could blame Mr. Idlout for using his satellite phone.

The next day, the Canadian Forces sent two Hercules planes from Winnipeg, 2,700 kilometres away. They dropped food and a tent onto the ice. A Cormorant search and rescue helicopter was deployed from Greenwood, N.S., 3,500 kilometres away, but a blizzard grounded the aircraft in transit.

As Mr. Idlout's common-law wife, Tracy Kalluk, observed, “That helicopter is coming all the way from Nova Scotia. I'm not sure why they don't keep one closer by.”

But the Canadian government considers it inefficient to locate search and rescue assets in the North, given the sparse population there. So search and rescue missions are conducted across great distances, with potentially fatal delays.

Last November, two C-130 Hercules aircraft were sent from Winnipeg to rescue a Inuit teenager stranded on the ice near Coral Harbour, Nunavut.

In 2007, a Cormorant was sent from Vancouver Island to rescue an Inuvialuit hunter trapped on an ice floe off Cape Parry, NWT. In 2006, five aircraft from Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland were sent to rescue three Inuit hunters whose boat ran out of fuel near Hall Beach, Nunavut.

One can question whether all these missions are needed. Most stranded Inuit can find their own way home, or be rescued by fellow hunters. But the shortcomings they expose in Canada's search and rescue capabilities are important, since more and more non-Inuit are venturing north.

Dozens of cruise ships enter Canada's Arctic waters each summer with large numbers of elderly passengers on board. When the German-owned Hanseatic went aground near Cambridge Bay in 1996, all of the passengers had to be transferred to another ship.

In 2007, the Canadian-owned MS Explorer sank during an Antarctic voyage after hitting an iceberg; fortunately, the sea was calm and all the passengers were saved. But the Explorer, a frequent visitor to Arctic waters, could just as easily have sunk in the Northwest Passage in rough seas, with no help for hours or days.

Search and rescue is also needed for airplane accidents. In 1991, a Hercules crashed 30 kilometres from Alert on Ellesmere Island, killing five of the 18 passengers and crew. The survivors endured two days in a raging blizzard before rescuers from the South could reach them.

Commercial flights pose even more of a risk, since more than 90,000 of them take “transpolar” or “high latitude” routes over Canadian territory each year. The prospect of a large jet crash-landing in the Arctic is terrifying, even if the risk is low.

At some point, politicians might decide that the increasing number of incidents justifies the stationing of a Cormorant in the Arctic. More likely, they will be embarrassed into acting after hundreds of people freeze to death after an incident.

If so, more than lives will be lost. Canadian control over Arctic waterways is disputed, and search and rescue is a manifestation of sovereignty. International lawyers call it “effective use and occupation,” while Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls it “use it or lose it.”

If Canada cannot respond quickly to accidents, our credibility as an Arctic power will suffer – and with it our Northwest Passage claim.

Michael Byers is author of Who Owns the Arctic? and is a project leader with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 27 Canadian universities and eight federal departments.

There are good, sound technical, logistical and financial reasons to explain why we deploy SAR resources in a certain way. But SAR is, always, a political question, too.

“How much is too little?” is, I suppose, the question Prof. Byers poses. A subordinate question is: is SAR, as a CF task, about Search and Rescue or about sovereignty, as Byers suggests? If it is, simultaneously, SAR and sovereignty then is an increased expenditure justified? Finally, and I know this question has been debated before, is SAR a core military task? What would be the impact of transferring the people (PYs), equipment and O&M budget resources to, say, the RCMP or the Coast Guard? What would the political (public support) impact on DND?
The hot potato about SAR is that the government really does put a price on your life. That fact becomes a political landmine for anyone handling it. Canadians do not like be reminded that they are only worth so much to the government. Government budgets only so much for SAR every year, based on trends. Without new funding/equipment and personal they will have to reduce SAR response elsewhere to provide more up north, the poop will hit the fan when they try that.

One option is to contract seasonal services from helicopter companies to provide extra coverage during peak periods. Along with that, improve the ability of local resources to respond to events. Regardless of what you do, weather will be the factor that dominates the response. If bad enough nothing moves no matter where it’s based.

I remember when all the Coast Guard ships on the West Coast but one where tied up due to lack of fuel and money to buy more. The Liberal government at the time did not want that fact making the headlines.
Just ban fishing on ice and be done with it..........isnt that the Canadian solution ?
WRT transferring funds from DND to CCG for SAR (which I don't believe for a minute that it'd be a good idea), I doubt that will have much impact on the average voting Canadian.  Most people seem to assume that all the SAR aircraft are CCG regardless of whether the paint job is white and red or orange and red.  They don't know the difference.

Without casting any aspersions on the Coast Guard, I know I'd rather have someone in a blaze orange flight suit coming for me from an orange and red aircraft if I was hurt in the middle of nowhere, than anyone else.  Not that I'm saying anything bad about the Coast Guard, or any other SAR organization - it's just that I know our CF SAR Techs are the absolute best at what they do.
It does not help that the Media generally can't tell the difference between the Coast Guard and DND.

As far as the difference between DND and CCG rescue specialists (RS). The CCG RS are seaman who have advanced first aid training and possibly Rescuing swimmer or diver training. CCG RS do not have IV certification as the CCG was to cheap to pay them to maintain the qualifications, hence the reason we used MAST pants.

DND RS have a wider skillset and greater medical training. The downside of this is that it is very hard for them to maintain those certificates. They also have a greater area to cover then the CCG, including mountain, inland rescue. Working with the guys at 442 squadron, I found that CCG had stronger boat and diving skills, plus we had better diving equipment then they did (early 2000 time period) but their medical skills were far better than ours. At the end of the day the CCG and DND RS have two very different job sets which happen to intersect at various levels. Both bring strong dedication to the job and will always do their best to help you.