Life-saving coast guard needs more independence, stable funding
Ottawa, Canada’s maritime search and rescue workers save an average of 15 lives every day and are responsible for monitoring millions of square kilometres of some of the harshest marine conditions in the world.
Yet the Canadian Coast Guard — which leads maritime search and rescue operations — is hampered by its position within Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which leaves it at the mercy of the department for funding and prevents it from receiving long-term sustainable capital funding.
The coast guard must be empowered so it can continue to perform its lifesaving work, the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans said in a report released Thursday. Senators recommend that the coast guard be made a separate statutory agency, reporting to the Minister of Transport. This would give the coast guard greater autonomy and an ability to make longer-term plans.
The report provides a deep and wide-ranging examination of the country’s maritime search and rescue operations. For instance, the committee heard that while the coast guard’s fleet of primary search and rescue vessels — which are specifically designed for the job — is in good shape, other coast guard vessels that can respond in search and rescue situations are aging and urgently need renewal.
When required, the coast guard is supported by the Canadian Armed Forces, which can deploy a variety of aircraft on search and rescue operations. However, Canada’s North has no dedicated search and rescue aircraft based there — help must fly in from bases on the East Coast or southern Ontario. The committee recommends a pilot project that would see private helicopters based out of the North and in Newfoundland and Labrador, which sees a disproportionately high number of search and rescue incidents.
Volunteers provide critical local knowledge and timely support during search and rescue operations. The work of groups like the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association saves lives but co-ordinating their activities when the coast guard and military are involved can cause confusion. The committee recommends that the coast guard, military and volunteer groups meet regularly so they can work better together.
The coast guard should also work more closely with Indigenous peoples, who have intimate knowledge of their territories — knowledge that could mean the difference between life and death during a search and rescue operation. Indigenous people should be full partners in maritime search and rescue.
The committee heard throughout the study that Canada’s search and rescue personnel are the best of the best. Senators wholeheartedly agree. But, given the life and death consequences of search and rescue operations, the committee believes authorities must remain committed to continuous improvement.
- There were over 6,100 maritime search and rescue incidents in Canada in 2017 — a number that is likely to grow thanks to an increase in pleasure craft traffic and warming temperatures in the North.
- The number of search and rescue cases in Newfoundland and Labrador is twice the national average.
- The Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary participates in 25% of maritime search and rescue operations each year, saving approximately 200 lives. It is, at times, the sole responder.
“We came away from this study thoroughly impressed by the professionalism and dedication of Canada’s search and rescue organizations. Many of the citizens in my province of Newfoundland and Labrador work in the commercial fishing industry, which has the highest fatality rate in Canada — we rely on search and rescue workers to keep our friends and family safe.”
– Senator Fabian Manning, Chair of the committee
“The Canadian Coast Guard needs stable funding and a long-term plan if it is going to continue its excellent, dangerous and life-saving work. Empowering the coast guard by making it a separate statutory agency reporting directly to the federal transport minister would help it plan for the future — particularly with regard to managing its aging but critically important fleet.”
– Senator Marc Gold, Deputy Chair of the committee
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