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Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale speaks reporters in St.John's on March 21, 2011. (Paul Daly/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale speaks reporters in St.John's on March 21, 2011. (Paul Daly/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Newfoundland Premier, PM clash over marine-rescue centre shutdown Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to close a maritime rescue centre in St. John's is raising the ire of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale.

Ms. Dunderdale was unable to persuade Mr. Harper to change his mind after he reiterated his position to shut down the 12-person call centre during a discussion the two leaders had Wednesday night.

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"Prime Minister Harper and I have a serious disagreement," she said Thursday.

"The Prime Minister said that he firmly believes that safety is not compromised and that the service will continue in the same manner that it's done now, but out of Halifax. We do not accept that. We don't believe it."

The federal government has said that the centre is redundant and shifting communications to Halifax is part of $56-million in cuts to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans budget that won't jeopardize public safety.

But Ms. Dunderdale said the shut down is especially wrong-headed in light of her province's long history of tragedy at sea.

"The vast majority of the people who work in this province earn their living on the water," she said.

"We have had very serious incidents here - not only in the oil and gas sector, but in the fishing sector as well. There's not a family or a community that hasn't been affected by it.

"While it might only mean a million dollars to the federal government, it's a critical element of feeling safe and being able to do your work better because of the infrastructure you have around you here in the province."

She said she proposed the idea of sharing the costs of keeping the centre open, but Harper rejected that.

The rift between the two Tory leaders marks a shift in tone for Ms. Dunderdale. During the federal election campaign, she stood alongside Mr. Harper at a rally, publicly voicing her support for him.

In recent weeks, she has dismissed questions over whether she regrets backing him.

She was asked Thursday whether she believed she should be more confrontational in her dealings with the Prime Minister - as her predecessor, Danny Williams, was.

"There is nothing more important in the province than safety - nothing. It trumps everything else," she replied.

"The prime minister knows that this issue is not closed as far as the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are concerned. And particularly not closed as far as this government is concerned."

A rally to protest the loss of the centre is planned for Saturday on the city's waterfront. Ms. Dunderdale said she won't attend because of a family obligation.

The Canadian Coast Guard website says 18 lives are lost and 600 saved in Newfoundland and Labrador each year, on average.

Two of the worst marine disasters off the province spurred a royal commission and a public inquiry. The Ocean Ranger drilling rig sank in a fierce storm on Feb. 15, 1982, killing all 84 workers on board.

On March 12, 2009, 17 of 18 passengers and crew died on Cougar Flight 491 when the chopper ferrying offshore oil workers crashed about 55 kilometres east of St. John's.

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