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A Coast Guard vehicle leaves the Kitsilano Coast Guard station after it was closed permanently in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday February 19, 2013.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Labour unions and others opposed to the closing of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base held a vigil on Tuesday after learning that the base would be closed immediately.

The federal government announced last May that the base would be closed but had not previously set a date, although the closing was expected this spring.

Critics say the federal government's decision to close the base will put lives at risk and shift responsibility for an average 350 search and rescue operations each year to the Sea Island Coast Guard station in Richmond, 17 nautical miles away.

Both Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and B.C. Premier Christy Clark have called for the base to remain open.

In a statement, the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees said it learned of the closing through a phone call Tuesday from Deputy Coast Guard Commissioner Jody Thomas.

The federal government has defended the closing, saying response times will remain within international standards. A rescue team will be based in Stanley Park for the peak boating season.

Groups opposed to the closing say those measures won't make up for closing the Kits base, and slammed Ottawa for enacting the shutdown on the same day the provincial budget was announced.

"Every B.C. political party, every nautical group, everyone who understands the dangers in these waters has said, 'do not close the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station' – and the federal Conservative government and its B.C. MPs have completely disregarded all the evidence that this is a deadly mistake," Irene Lanzinger, secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour said Tuesday in a statement. "To do this on B.C. budget day shows that lack of respect knows no bounds."