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Community calls on federal Liberals to postpone Coast Guard station closing

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard said the shutdown is part of a program that began in 2007, and workers were told in 2014 that the centre would close this year.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The federal Liberals are facing calls to postpone the closing of a Coast Guard station in the Vancouver Island community of Comox until a parliamentary committee is finished reviewing the plan.

At issue is the fate of the Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre, which is set to close on May 10 under a process started under the previous Conservative government. However, that decision is being reviewed by the standing committee on fisheries and oceans, which held hearings on the issue Tuesday and has weeks of work ahead.

Mark Strahl, a Conservative MP from British Columbia and member of the standing committee, said that while he supported the decision to close the station, the current government should now wait until the parliamentary committee has completed its work.

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"It is a real sign that the Liberal government is disrespecting Parliament," Mr. Strahl said from Ottawa.

"They're pressing ahead with the decision to close [the Comox centre] in the middle of a study they said they were interested in and said they wanted to hear from the parliamentary committee on. There's not much point in having a committee hearing if the die has been cast."

The debate comes in the aftermath of a popular postelection decision by the federal Liberals to reopen a Coast Guard base in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood that was closed by the Conservatives in a move that drew criticism from local politicians.

The Comox centre monitors distress and safety calls and co-ordinates responses. The facility also broadcasts weather and navigational warnings and screens vessels entering Canadian waters.

The former government announced the Comox shutdown in 2012. Current plans call for a station in Victoria to pick up the duties of the Comox operation. Unifor, the union representing Coast Guard communications officers, has warned that the concentration of communications in Victoria may interfere with detecting calls for help.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard said the shutdown is part of a program that began in 2007, and workers were told in 2014 that the centre would close this year.

"As new and more effective radio and navigation technology has become available, the Coast Guard has integrated services into fewer communications and traffic services centres," it said in an e-mailed statement.

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MP Ken Hardie, the only B.C. Liberal member of the 10-member committee, said he and the other Liberal members are keeping an open mind on the fate of the base, pending the completion of the committee report.

"That's the reason you have committees: to call people in and hear what they have to say and air it out," said Mr. Hardie, who represents a riding in the Lower Mainland city of Surrey. "We need to be convinced that it's a good thing. The Coast Guard has an engaging case, but so do the other voices."

He said the committee, consisting of six Liberals, three Conservatives and one New Democrat, is aiming to get its report done ahead of May 10 to allow Parliament to have its say on the issue.

Asked whether he thinks the Comox operation should close, Mr. Hardie said he went into the hearings with "healthy skepticism" about closing the operation.

B.C. New Democrat Fin Donnelly, who also sits on the committee, welcomed the Liberals' insistence that they have no preconceptions about whether the station should close, though he said "it is very disturbing" to hear that the plan to close the Comox base is proceeding.

Mr. Donnelly said the committee has been operating on the good faith that the government will be interested in its conclusions.

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"I hope, and am still working towards the fact, that hearing the testimony and putting pressure on the government is going to actually work and [it will] listen to common sense. I think they should keep Comox open."

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