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A coast guard vessel in Mary's Harbour, N.L. on Sept. 22, 2021. This photo was taken just after the Coast Guard returned the debris believed to be from Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins' boat, the FV Island Lady.Jenn Thornhill Verma

Dwight Russell can’t forget the apologetic words from one of the RCMP officers who came to his door on a Sunday evening in September.

“We just don’t have the adequate resources to be able to do this,” he recalls the officer saying.

Mr. Russell’s son Marc Russell and his crewmate Joey Jenkins had been missing for two days after their boat failed to return to the wharf in Mary’s Harbour, a fishing community of about 350 people in southern Labrador.

The situation was bleak. The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, or JRCC, a federal search and rescue command centre based in Halifax, was suspending its search for the men and handing the operation over to the RCMP. It would become a recovery effort, not a rescue mission.

Labrador Fishermen's Union Shrimp Company Limited saltfish cod processing plant supervisor, Stan Rumbolt shows text messages he sent exchanged with Marc Russell.Jenn Thornhill Verma

The families argued against that decision, and took to social media and their phones to press officials to resume the search. Although debris – including a rubber boot, gas cans and two fish tubs, one of which was filled with 225 kilograms of cod – was recovered that day about 16 kilometres east of Mary’s Harbour, there had been no sign of the men or their 8.5-metre boat, the FV Island Lady.

“We have to do whatever we can,” Mr. Russell recalls telling the officers as they stood on his porch. “We knew we didn’t have the resources and the RCMP knew they didn’t have them and, well, obviously, time was passing.”

While federal agencies wound down their search, close to 100 fishing crews from tiny communities along the Labrador coast and northwestern Newfoundland continued their own hastily organized search effort, scanning out across the sea. Wharf-side vigils and living-room prayer circles sprung up across the province, while a rally at the Coast Guard station in St. John’s called on officials to “bring our boys home.”

In this corner of Newfoundland and Labrador, where fishing is a lifeblood for many, the pair weren’t just missing fishermen, they were “Marc” and “Joey.” Under intense public and political pressure – all coming on the day of the federal election – search and rescue aircraft and vessels were eventually redeployed, but Mr. Russell believes the delay and a clumsy handoff to the RCMP wasted valuable time.

After searching for 10 days, covering about 32,000 square kilometres by air and water, the missing fishermen and their vessel were never recovered. Mr. Russell said the stalled search that Sunday evening, which created a gap of about 12 hours, still haunts him.

The case drew into sharp focus the flaws in Newfoundland and Labrador’s search and rescue capabilities – problems highlighted by a recent public inquiry into the province’s response to ground search and search missions. That inquiry was ordered after a 14-year-old boy, Burton Winters, froze to death on sea ice in 2012 after abandoning his snowmobile outside Makkovik, N.L.

Like the search for the Mary’s Harbour fishermen, the effort to find the missing snowmobiler was hamstrung by a stumbling response from officials, jurisdictional red tape, poor weather and a lack of available aircraft. The boy’s family spent years calling for an inquiry into the missteps that delayed the recovery of his body.

A wharf with the empty location for Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins’ boat in Mary's Harbour.Jenn Thornhill Verma

The inquiry’s commissioner found search and rescue efforts in Newfoundland and Labrador rely too often on underfunded and aging volunteer groups. He recommended the province review its 911 services to improve responses to these calls and said Newfoundland should ask the federal government to use Canadian Armed Forces helicopters when no other search and rescue aircraft are available.

The challenges around search and rescue missions in Newfoundland and Labrador are immense. Because of its vast stretches of remote territory and commercial fishing activity, the province has twice the rate of search and rescue calls compared to the Canadian average. Labrador, with 27,000 people, has 8,000 kilometres of coastline and some of the harshest marine environments in the country.

Yvonne Jones, the MP for Labrador who lobbied officials to resume the search for the missing fishermen, said federal cabinet ministers should not have to be called to get resources moving. The region should also have small Coast Guard stations with boats that can be rapidly deployed, something that exists on the island of Newfoundland and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, but not in Labrador, she said.

“People in the North live in very difficult, rugged environments. These are isolated communities and people travel hundreds of thousands of kilometres over sea ice and snow trails, they travel hundreds of kilometres over water just to fish from the ocean in small boats,” she said. “That’s the environment we work in, and asking to have good search and rescue in that type of environment in that part of the country is not an unreasonable request.”

The Canadian Rangers, a group of lightly-equipped, mobile military reservists who conduct patrols in other remote parts of Canada, are also an untapped resource that could help with search and rescue in Labrador, she added.

John Hogan, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Minister of Justice and Public Safety, said the province is reviewing the inquiry’s recommendations, but acknowledged negotiating with Ottawa should be a priority. He suggested the province has made some improvements since the Burton Winters case, particularly around mental-health supports for volunteer searchers.

“We’ll try to find as much co-operation as we can with the federal government and search and rescue groups in this province to keep the cost down, but safety is of course always the most important thing and that’s the priority for this government and my department,” he told reporters in St. John’s this month, after the report was released.

“There are some good things in there, and we feel like we’ve already taken some of those steps.”

The challenges around search and rescue missions in Newfoundland and Labrador are immense. Because of its vast stretches of remote territory and commercial fishing activity, the province has twice the rate of search and rescue calls compared to the Canadian average.Jenn Thornhill Verma

Todd Russell, president of southern Labrador Inuit group NunatuKavut Community Council and Marc Russell’s uncle, called the JRCC’s decision to stop their search for the Mary’s Harbour fishermen after less than 48 hours “premature” and “appalling” and “unequivocally the wrong decision.” He hopes the inquiry can force real change to search and rescue responses in his region.

“The inquiry has made recommendations that will strengthen search and rescue in this province, shining a light on the gaps, the inequities,” he said. “But there’s no ground search and rescue teams. There’s also no fast-rescue [marine] craft. There is little or no air support. So, the inquiry was essential in really shining a light on this.”

One of the officers who took part in the search for Burton Winters and testified at the public inquiry was RCMP Corporal Stephen Howlett – who also happened to be assigned to the Mary’s Harbour detachment when the fishermen went missing. In small communities in Labrador, where many people are related to those who go missing, search and rescue missions can become deeply personal and officers feel extra pressure to give families the closure they want, he said.

“The stakes are high. When you work in these small towns, you know the families and that adds an extra layer of emotion,” Cpl. Howlett said, speaking in September from his police cruiser, parked just metres from the empty space on the wharf where the missing fishermen would often tie up their boat.

But the RCMP’s capability to conduct search and rescue missions in many parts of Labrador remains severely limited. In Mary’s Harbour, there are only two officers assigned to the detachment, the force has no boat, and is prohibited for liability reasons from using or directing marine vessels.

Ms. Jones, the MP, said if federal agencies aren’t equipped to conduct search and rescue missions on land or at sea, and if the Canadian Armed Forces won’t share their resources, then the private sector should be enlisted. She points to companies like Cougar Helicopters, which has been providing search and rescue services since 1991 to Newfoundland’s offshore oil and gas industry.

Dwight Russell, meanwhile, hasn’t given up on finding his son. As someone who earns a living from the sea, he also understands the dangers that come with working off the Labrador coast.

“It’s a rough and unforgiving ocean that has some of the roughest seas in the world,” he said.

Marc Russell, at 25, was one of the youngest owner-operators in the province’s fishing industry. This was his first season as an inshore cod fisherman, although he’d been a crew member on his father’s longliner in the shrimp and crab fisheries. Mr. Jenkins, 30, was more of a “reluctant fisherman,” according to his uncle Keith Poole, one whose real passion was photography and capturing Labrador’s rugged beauty.

The loss of both men has been deeply felt in Mary’s Harbour and fishing communities across the province. Mr. Russell said it pains him that the life he chose, being a fisherman, also cost him his son. As a board member of Labrador Fishermen’s Union Shrimp Co., he spent years raising concerns about shortcomings in search and rescue capabilities in Labrador. In September, as he joined dozens of other fishermen in a vain search for the FV Island Lady, those flaws in the system came into plain view.

“It’s painful when you have to search for your own son,” he said.

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